When I was very young, I dreamed that I would one day own a home with a library. It was a strange dream for a kid from a working class family, but I had rather vivid and specific expectations for what my library would one day look like. It would have been filled ceiling to floor with heavy, leather-bound books, hold a reading chair with perfect light, and definitely have those cool ladders that would let me slide around looking for just the book I needed when I needed it.
The reality was a bit less magical. While collecting books was a hobby I began very early, with requests for books dominating my Christmas and birthday wishes and journeys with friends into cluttered, dusty used book sellers in Billings a regular occurrence, my collection grew without a place to house it. Books lay scattered on IKEA and other prefab shelves in a series of apartments, interspersed with periodic purges to get them down to a manageable number.
Other than selling them (aside from a misguided decision in the early days of eBay to sell my first edition of Dungeons and Dragons books), I tried almost every strategy I could think of to reduce the pile. For years, I gave each student in my class a book with an inscription on the last day. Other times, I lent books knowing the person would never return them. Neither was a terribly effective means of reducing the piles.
Finally, three years ago, as I moved from a house with room for thousands of books to a small loft, I realized it was time for a major reduction and started giving away ten books at a time, both in indiscriminate stacks and in personalized bundles for friends and former students, some of whom still owe me promised reports on the books I gave them.
Despite giving away easily 1,200 books these past few years, I’ve certainly added new ones and some have stubbornly clung to their shelves. I suppose there’s something incredibly hopeful about packing up Essays in Existentialism and Infinite Jest for the fourth time in as many years as if I will ever read the former again or the latter for the first time, but the truth is that some books remain in the collection because, for reasons that are not always entirely clear, they’re just too treasured to end up in someone else’s hands.
I don’t think it’s the book that has lived longest in my collection, but one that struck me as I packed my boxes again last night is my battered, split trade paperback of Terry Brooks’s fantasy novel The Elfstones of Shannara. I read a lot of the Shannara series in my day and while The Elfstones is the best by a wide margin, that’s not why I’ve kept it. I think it lingers on my shelves and makes U-Haul after U-Haul because I remember the comfort it offered me in a difficult time.
We had just moved from my childhood home in Shelby to Lockwood, outside of Billings, to live with a stepfather I didn’t know in a town that didn’t seem very welcoming or like anything I’d ever known. I can still remember convincing my mother at the Blue Basket convenience store to buy me the book (which had a striking cover long since lost) and I didn’t even notice that it was a sequel to the first book in the series. I can still remember staying inside at recess to read one morning in Mrs. Lemon’s class and even lying to the nurse that I wasn’t feeling well that afternoon so I could read on the cot in her office rather than doing my math.
Those memories, of course, capture the best part of reading when I was a kid. Undistracted by a phone, the Internet, or the need to move, I could absolutely get lost in a story so completely that I couldn’t hear anything around me. That the story was about a displaced orphan boy certainly didn’t hurt its power, either. There weren’t any magic stones that were going to get me out of the situation I was in then, but for an hour (or three) at a time, a book like The Elfstones of Shannara offered the magic not of escapism, but real escape, for a ten-year-old boy who desperately needed it.
My priorities have shifted quite a bit from those of the kid who dreamed of owning a big house with a disproportionately large library, but the sentiment that books are a refuge when we need comfort hasn’t changed. Releasing them out into the hands of other people who might need a little of that magic makes owning them even better, but I’ll probably keep The Elfstones one more time.