My parents tell me I always liked to read. As a kid, long before I could actually read, I would be sitting on the couch, thumbing through a book, staring intently at the pages. When my mom would ask me what I was doing, I would tell her I was "reading."
I don't remember this personally, of course. My earliest memory of books is thumbing through--scratch that, actually reading--several Classics Illustrated books. I remember reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (which doesn't actually sound right, as it's a fairly gruesome book near the end, but that's what I remember). Later, there was the Scholastic Book Club one sheet order forms we got in school, which lead to a lot of classics, including an abridged Journey to the Center of the Earth. Someone (a fellow student? or was it in our English text?) introduced me to Encyclopedia Brown, which lead to Alfred Hitchcock's Three Detectives stories. Later, the fateful day in middle school library where I ran across The Hobbit...which led me to beg my parents to buy my own copies, and then, somewhere during my third read-through, have them cover the paperbacks with contact paper to protect them. Later still, when I found a Stephen King book in my high school study hall desk, my fate/addiction was sealed.
Somewhere during my growing reading obsession, I started to fall in love with the books themselves. Given the option, I would look for hardbacks over paper. I started to prowl Chamblin's Book Mine (the world's best used book store) for cool, unexpected titles, all the while wondering why anyone would not just keep their used books yet still being thankful for their oversight whenever I made another discovery.
My love became more obsessive and ornate. I used to drive up to the recently opened Barnes & Noble and spend whatever was left over in my paycheck. Whenever I found a leather-bound (or even pleather-bound) edition--particularly if on the bargain bin tables--I would swipe it up. Much of these visits was spent staring longingly at the leather-bound and lavishly illustrated Lord of the Rings collection, but I could never bring myself to pull the trigger. I would go to see whatever obscure writer my university would bring in, buy a book, and get an autograph. Eventually, I started dreaming of owning a house mainly so I could have my own library (wood-paneled, of course) of leather-bound and hand-signed editions...you know, a gentlemanly room in which I could dwell when I retired, maybe while wearing a tweed jacket and enjoying a snifter of cognac.
When I moved from Florida to Ohio, a good half of my U-Haul was paper boxes full of books. I had bookshelves in my living room, bedroom, and study that first year in my new apartment. Then I had to get a roomate, so there was a contraction...some books went to a used bookstore, others went for sale online. After another roommate, my then-girlfriend moved in with more stuff, so another contraction. Pulled by the allure of washer and dryer hookups, we moved to a smaller house...and another contraction. The more stuff we acquired, the more books went bye-bye. When we started to turn the study into a nursery, it brought on (you guessed it) yet another contraction.
Too many books have, through the years, gone away. I realized long ago I'm never going to have the wood-paneled library...hell, I'm probably never going to own my own house and certainly will never be able to afford to retire, so the lack of a library in which to hang isn't really a big deal. I still have a lot of those old and leather-bound editions, but I never read them. Hell, I hardly even think of them. Instead, when I think of books, I think of my fourth copy of Neuromancer, my second copy of Snowcrash, or my still-contact paper-bound Lord of the Rings set. I can and quite often do close my eyes and recall scenes, lines, whole passages from each. I can, however, do the same with the Bill, The Galactic Hero series and about fifty other books, all of which are considerably more low-brow...and all of which, unfortunately, are lost in the book-contraction breeze.
This year for Christmas, my parents bought me a Kindle. I'm relatively broke, so I immediately downloaded a ton of out-of-copyright classics. It now has tons of Twain, Burroughs, Verne, and Wells residing on it, just waiting to be (quite literally) thumbed through. Immediately, though, I thought about buying a copy of Neuromancer, my perennial candidate for best novel ever. It would be nice, I considered, to have a copy whose binding would never break. And then get copies of all my other personal classics. And then get copies of all the goofy sci-fi and horror I've plowed through. I could, on this one little device, hold the library of my dreams and the library of stuff I've actually read.
Then it occurred to me: if I could have every book I've ever wanted on this one device and back up said library on the computer...what did I need books for?
Artifacts are going away. I've already moved into a post-artifactual music collection. While I have some dvds, they usually remain in storage, as my dvr is a much better storage medium. My papers and teaching material have long been digital. I now store lyric and music ideas on a hard drive rather than cassettes and notepads.
What is my world going to look like when I finally make the complete move to virtual storage? My stuff is losing its tangibility...and I'm surprised to find myself perfectly fine with that.
My first credit card balance was incurred at Duluth's first large-scale book store--a Barnes&Noble. I remember carrying chin-high stacks of books to the desk just as I did at the public library where, as child, my sister and I, if we had been good, would wait after school for my mother to be done working in her closet (literally an old storage closet) of an office.
My wife and I have a mortgage on a modest rambler now. My library dreams are gone as well, and I am long sense at peace with that at least. I sold over 1500 books over the course of a few years, and I no longer enjoy accumulating them. My basement is full of artifacts from one end to the other. I can see little of the floor. I come from a family of modest means, and we hold on to things, especially things that have been owned by those who have passed on. Few of those things would bring more than a couple of bucks in a garage sale, but I experience a constant tension between wanting to divest myself of all of them--let them go the way of the books that I was not re-reading and no longer getting drunk and referencing in passionate grad-school discussions--and wanting to gather them all around me as I experience the existential pain and beauty of seeing my loved-ones age and sense the memories of those who have passed become more rare, more fleeting, and sometimes more poignant amid the constant stream of stimuli and reactive stress that I am living. I can't bear the thought of digitized copies of my father's, my son's, and my own childhood art projects, yet I wonder at times if I these, like my book collection(s) are as much about maintaining and advertising my identity as they are about making the most of relationships in the here and now.
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