So many books, so little time

Books have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. First, being read to by my parents, then poring over books before I could read the words and, then, glorious day, the freedom of being able to read by myself!

There was no stopping me once that happened. I would read whatever I could lay my hands on; which, on one notable occasion when I was about eight years old, were the instructions for building a backyard bomb shelter that I found in the kitchen junk drawer. Some pretty interesting conversations with my parents followed that discovery.

Fortunately for me, I did not usually have to resort to such material, as my parents made weekly family trips to the library a high priority. Upon my return home from these expeditions, I would sink onto my bed or the couch and consume that week’s offerings the way a hungry person might fall upon a meal, oblivious to everything going on around me.

Why and how we read

There are so many reasons to read, and each of us has our own: perhaps it is to escape into a world other than our own, to learn something, to be amused or to be challenged.

As my friend, author Merilyn Simonds, has written:

“Books invite me to hear something besides my own thoughts.”

Just as what we read changes with our evolving interests, so does how we read: there was a time when I could not even imagine reading an e-book, but that is no longer the case.

My work has me on the road much of the time. Like most avid readers, I have a fear of being caught without something to read, so I would head off on work-related travel loaded down with three or four print books. After all, what if I had to deal with a delayed flight, a sleepless night or getting snowed in somewhere? Porter, VIA and hotel room magazines provide little to meet the needs of a desperate reader.

Now, I can embark on a trip, whether for work or pleasure, with as many e-books as my library card allows me to have, all contained in my small and lightweight tablet. And, I can check out new books if nothing in my supply suits my mood or if I have tossed and turned through so many nights that I have exhausted, if not myself, the books I brought with me.

Chaos or order?

That said, there is nothing like the feel of a “real” book in my hands or the sight of rows and rows of books in libraries and bookstores. Just looking at all those books makes me feel rich.

My partner and I have a revolving collection of books that reflects both our past and current interests – and, sometimes, hints at interests to come. It also includes books we have kept from when our children were young; books we now enjoy sharing with our grandchildren.

His tend to the serious: gardening, construction, carpentry, politics, Scandinavian mysteries (which I find generally just too dark, literally and figuratively, to make for good bedtime reading).

The books in my office are, as you would expect, pretty serious, but those I have stacked beside my bed, piled in the bathroom and scattered throughout the house illustrate my need to escape that seriousness when I am not working: cookbooks, mysteries, current literature, travel books.

Books move in and out of our house – sometimes on loan, sometimes given to someone who can make better use of them, sometimes exchanged for new offerings at our neighbour’s little free library.

We even keep a book in the car, so whichever of us is the passenger can read to the driver on long trips. We just finished Calvin Trillin’s “Alice, Let’s Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater,” a collection of his essays on food and eating, which was the perfect kind of book for car-reading, as long as it was not too close to meal time.

We have attempted various systems for organizing the books in our house. Cookbooks, when they are not being read, are all in one bookcase. Most gardening, construction and carpentry books are housed together, except when they are in use. Reference books grace a bookcase that is an arm’s reach from the dining room table should a question or disagreement arise over the course of a meal. Books about women, the law and violence against women – whether they be textbooks, non-fiction or fiction – congregate in my office, along with our travel books and extensive map collection.

But then we get to the hard-to-categorize books. How do you define a political book? Is it just non-fiction or does it include political fiction? What about biographies and autobiographies of political people? Where should library books be kept? The books I know I should read but am never going to get to? Then there are the books that share an identity only inasmuch as they are all very large.

We have books on every floor and in every room of our house. In some places, they are neatly shelved or stacked, in others, their arrangement is more chaotic. So far, we can usually lay our hands on what we are looking for after a reasonably short hunt, but that may change with age, especially if our memories begin to fail us.

Some days, I dream of seeing our books shelved in a completely orderly way, but I have yet to figure out what that would look like. As Kathryn Shulz writes in her recent New Yorker essay about the organization of books:

“The difficulty is that anything that is perfectly ordered is always threatening to become imperfect and disorderly – especially books in a household of readers. . . . This is a difficulty that goes well beyond libraries. No matter how beautifully your life is arranged, no matter how lovingly you tend it, it will not stay that way forever.”

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