Books — Libraries — Reading

I love books. I love to read. I love the feel of a book in my hand; I love to find an author who draws me into his or her created world. My books are my life-long friends. I give away the books I do not much care for, but keep the ones I like, even if I never read them again. They sit on my shelves, reminding me of the pleasure they gave. They are my friends, guardians and supporters of my personal and intellectual journey. Rooms lined with books are my favorites. Back in the 1990’s, Max and I took my mother to Boston where we toured the home of John and Abigail Adams. I was entranced by his library, located in a small building attached to the house. It was one large room, two stories high, with a staircase and narrow walkway to attain the second tier. Imagine the effort to gather such a library in 1780. I do not expect to achieve the dream of having such a room in my home, but I thought his was one of the most wonderful rooms I had ever seen. It was clearly a working library and study, not a collection gathered to impress. I have always loved libraries, but am eternally put off by my early memories of the library dragons, the prim, usually elderly ladies who guarded books from the “unwashed” such as me. Perhaps it was my eclectic choices which put them on guard. Fortunately, librarians are much more friendly nowadays. Being able to purchase my choices–love!!–allows me to chose without commentary from others, a freedom I grasp with relief.

My book club recently read Anna Quindlen’s How Reading Changed My Life. She writes about her love of reading—the title is self-explanatory. When I was teaching high school, it was hard for me to deal with students who walked in and announced “I hate to read.” I thought: you are an idiot!! However, I generally made a bland response about how I loved to read or rolled my eyes. The same students frequently commented on my breadth of knowledge: “How did you know that?” one would ask, seemingly astonished. How, indeed! I read it in a book.

My father loved books, as did his father. One of my treasured photographs is of my Shafer grandparents in “the library” of their home, seated by the library table. That table now sits next to me, holding my work as I read and write at the computer. My father collected books all of his life; when he was an impoverished young minister, he tended to forget his children needed shoes in his haste to purchase some much-desired book. When he died, it took his grandson Jim four months to sort and catalogue the books. It was a daunting task, as thousands of books were stored on all three levels of his condo. Some were given to the Grace Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio; others were divided among the children and grandchildren; the bulk are stored in Salem–the Latin, Greek, and philosophy—waiting for Jim to have a study of his own. 

My mother also loved to read and was an avid patron of libraries, preferring not to have a large personal collection. She did have several bookcases of much-loved books. Her treasured collection of books about John and Abigail Adams is now shelved in my living room, as are her Gladys Tabor, Stillmeadow books. A few of her beloved books from childhood also now sit on my bookshelves.

Our home was not “filled with books,” as my father had a study in our home, lined floor to ceiling with bookshelves, while other rooms contained no book shelves but perhaps a few books stacked here and there. Books were all around and we children were encouraged to read and to use the library. No, we were expected to read and to use the library. Reading was more important than sports, games, entertainment—and certainly more important than TV, which we were not allowed to watch very often. I cannot even remember where the TV was in our house when I was 16—oh…yes, out on the side porch. Some of my favorite times as a child were visits to my grandmother, Hazel Parsons, who would take me to the Highland Branch of the Louisville Public Library and allow me to browse and then help me carry home stacks of my selections. One time, after I had selected a stack, taken them home, and read all day, we returned the next day for more. The librarian sourly commented that perhaps I needed to select more difficult books. In my teaching career, as we teachers struggled to encourage students to read—and I read hundreds of those “lying” book reports in which the student clearly had NOT read the book or had read only parts—I would remember that librarian’s remark. She certainly had never read any research about how children learn to read or about the stages of reading development. But then, those were the days when the library dragons guarded their treasures from scruffy little kids such as me.

My house is filled with books. Upstairs the window seats in the dormer windows are lined with book shelves; there, I have all the 35 cent paperback novels, many important literary works, that I bought in college. Hundreds of books I have bought in the past 45 years, a cookbook collection, and my children’s books line the large upstairs bedroom, one wall of our living room, a shelf in the dining area, and the book cases along the non-window wall of the sun porch. Lots of magazines are stacked around, too. I do not go to the library very often now, as books covered with scent or the smell of candles or Glade or similar things give me a headache. Mostly, I buy what I want to read—and I recycle. I have some books I read again and again. Every few years, I re-read all of Jane Austen’s novels. I also read through the 37 book cycle of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series—again and again. E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books are another set of favorites to re-read. I plan to start re-reading all of my books about Thomas Merton again, as my book club is going to read The Seven Story Mountain this spring. I have all of his journals, many of his books, and many critical books. I haven’t read the Merton books for twenty years—and am anticipating the pleasure of re-reading from a more mature viewpoint. Right now, our Brown Bag study group at church is reading a book of Merton’s writings about nature. His poet’s eye sees to the heart of things.

The other night Max’s grandson Ethan’s oldest son, great-grandson Rhett, age 4 1/2, asked me to “read books.” Soon he and his brother Riley, age 3, were sitting on my knee or leaning against my legs as I read: Winnie the Pooh, Dumbo, Morty and Mickey, and The Tawny Scrawny Lion. I had not read those Little Golden books to little boys for some 35 years, but the words came back almost as if I had them memorized. The same thing happened each year on Dr Seuss Day at school [March 2—Read Across America] when my seniors enjoyed The Cat in the Hat, One Fish-Two Fish, Green Eggs and Ham, among others. I could almost chant those books I have read them so many times. I am looking forward to reading to the “Greats” again—Max has six great-grandchildren; the oldest is Rhett. A small body, pressed close as one reads aloud, is one of life’s most wonderful tactile experiences.

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