I have a books problem.
My parents read Dr. Seuss books to me when I was a child, and that was where it started. Every weekend they would take me to the library. It started with the books on science and astronomy. Once I had read them all, they introduced me to the grownup side of the library. I started reading science books by Isaac Asimov. Then I found out he wrote other books that were fiction.
That was the beginning of the problem.
Because once I had read every science fiction book in the library, I was stuck. So I started going to bookstores. And I started to buy paperbacks.
By the time I was in college, I had a few dozen. I lined them up in my dorm room. I peered at them. I wondered when the next Philip K. Dick or Harlan Ellison or Thomas M. Disch would come out. Big chunky Heinleins in black covers. Asimov robot novels. Skinny Robert Silverbergs in bunches. What money I had, I spent. I began haunting used bookstores looking for finds, but always, always buying, never selling.
I moved to Boston. I got a job. I got married to a woman whose stepfather was was Ben Bova, the science fiction writer and editor.
Now I had money. I joined the science fiction book club. And I bought bookcases.
Eventually, I got divorced. When I picked up my stuff and moved out, most of the books were in there. She kept the furniture and TV; I didn’t care. But she never returned the Science Fiction Hall of Fame collections, because they were edited by Ben Bova. I was sorry to see the marriage end, but I was really angry about those books. I had bought them, they were mine. I went to Wordsworth in Harvard Square and bought them again.
After a few years, I met a wonderful woman and eventually, we decided to get an apartment together. She knew I had books; she’d seen the bookcases. When we were packing up the last of her room in the Victorian house she shared with seven other people, I noticed that there was a window seat . . . and space under it. I picked up the covering on that space and saw there were boxes there.
In the boxes were scraps of fabric. Hundreds of them.
I wanted this relationship to work. I knew it was important. I accepted her and her fabric, and she accepted me and my books.
That was a better deal for me than for her.
We got married. We bought a house. We had children. We read books to our children.
We built bookcases into our sunroom. They filled a whole wall.
We moved to a bigger house. We bought more bookcases. There are bookcases in my bedroom, in our guest room, in our media room, and in our living room. But the paperbacks were a problem. They are shallow, and there are a lot of them.
There is this room at the front of the house on the second floor that has very little use. It’s small, about 9 feet square, and has a big window that lets the sun into the second floor. It’s just about big enough to solve my paperback book problem.
We found tall, shallow cases, designed to hold CDs. I bought seven of them and bolted them to the wall. And now that little room looks something like this:
I recently had to pack up all these books and take down the cases so we could paint the room. And then I put them all back.
Every one of those books was a memory. I remember when I bought it. I remember when I read it. I was on Martha’s Vineyard. I was staying up late reading when I should have been studying. I was alone and lonely. I have nearly everything Philip K. Dick has ever written, and five books about his life and work. I have my grandfather’s hardback collection of the works of Edgar Allan Poe (Raven edition). I have pulps by William Tenn, the hack science fiction writer who was my professor for the science fiction literature class at Penn State, and broad shelf full of Stephen King, which I read for the style, not the thrill, honest. There’s everything silly by my friend Craig Shaw Gardner, including the Batman novel that has a character with my name in it. I have the books I loaned to people and then bugged them years later to return. The new Neal Stephensons are cheek-by-jowl with my wife’s John Steinbeck, my Michael Moorcooks next to her Anne McCaffreys. Vonnegut shares a shelf with Voltaire.
There is, of course, the full set of Harry Potter in hardback.
On other shelves are the great nonfiction prose of Mary Roach, Malcolm Gladwell, Tom Wolfe, and of course, Asimov again. There are lots of business books, but also books on politics, math (a whole shelf of puzzle books), physics, philosophy, travel, culture, and history. In my mind’s eye, I’ve been present in Nineteenth Century China, at the discovery of the double helix, and for the birth of the Oxford English Dictionary. (I have my own bookshelf of dictionaries, thesauruses, style guides, atlases, and collections of slang, naturally.)
I recently started to pack up the bookshelves of my son, a recent college graduate, who will be rejoining us in this house for a few months before heading off into the world. His collection is already bigger than mine was at his age. I spotted Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, which he told me had blown his mind when he was a teenager. There were also a whole bunch of books I’d taken off my own shelves and recommended to him by Dick and Silverberg and Stephenson. But most of the books he’d acquired on his own.
Now that I have been an author for a decade, I have a different perspective on books. As I reshelved this whole collection, I reflected on what the authors thought. Each author slaved away on the text. Each one eagerly awaited its publication. Each held the newly published book and felt the pride of publication. Each book is an accomplishment. They communicate, they titillate, they elucidate, they thrill, enlighten, expand the mind and soothe the spirit and stir the emotions.
These books of mine are heavy and old and dusty and faded. They take up a lot of space. I should probably get rid of them.
But somehow I just can’t . . .