You can tell a lot about people by the books on their shelves. Years ago, I was getting to know a young man. He was intelligent, funny, a gentleman. He hardly ever lied! Our relationship was progressing so nicely that when he invited me for a home-cooked meal, all I could think of were the words of my Lutheran aunt from Minnesota (think Lake Wobegon): if it seems too good to be true, run, run, run. After dinner, the young man gave me a tour, and I realized that run I must. “So, where do you keep your books?” I asked, slowly backing out of the apartment. He looked at me as though I’d asked to see the root cellar. The most recent issue of Sports Illustrated notwithstanding, the man owned no books.
At this point I must confess that there are five bookshelves in our entry, two in the living room, two in the dining room, two in the kitchen, two in the upstairs landing, five total in all of the bedrooms, and five in the backhouse. These are not little nooks for books, but floor-to-ceiling operations housing around 150 books each. According to this estimate, we own about 3,500 books.
These numbers suggest pathology, perhaps calling into question any right I might have to judge people like Mr. No Books, whose company I fled very shortly after the unwitting reveal. And now that I see that this book thing has morphed into an obsession, I promise to no longer think “What a weirdo” when I meet someone who has an insane number of porcelain turtles. Or hundreds of little lighthouses. Or more than one Hummel. In fact, these collectors walk a much higher road than I do—I’m sure they never ended an affair because someone didn’t have an endless supply of turtles, lighthouses, or Hummels. (Mr. No Books, wherever you are, I am sorry.)
Yet, even admitting now that I have a book problem, I don’t understand people who have none. I was never one for scrapbooks, and all of our family photographs are in boxes somewhere (I’m pretty sure), but when I pick up any one of my books, I can recall with absolute clarity who I was when I first read it. This is narcissistic, I suppose, but the sensation of having a library with so much personal history makes home, well, home. My collection of Nancy Drews conjures more memories for me than old photographs of myself as a 10-year-old. I see a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I remember as a happy-go-lucky ninth-grader learning not just about social injustice, but how complex it is. I remember my eyes going wide in recognition when I read The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. Yeats! Faulkner! My cookbooks! And then there are the hundreds of religious and spiritual books—Christian, Buddhist, Hindu—that reveal my lifelong search for something I will never find in books.
People talk about books as relics. Some say they had a great 650-year run. Others lament that all good things come to an end, and ain’t technology great. But for me, the physicality of books, what we hold in our hand, the turning of pages, and the exquisite typography are at the core of the experience. Reading Yeats on a screen just seems wrong. And I believe that the books we read and own are one of the most revealing indications of who we are. They also can be a tremendous aid in making important decisions. To be sure, decades ago, had I lived in a world of only Kindles, I probably would have married the wrong man.