Of Books and Boundaries


For as long as I can remember, books have been my companions. I carried them to grocery stores, to doctors’ offices, to school, and to work. I toted tomes to movie theaters, to beaches, to park benches, and to parties. I never go anywhere without them. As a young girl, I remember reading while walking with my mother through the aisles of the local grocery store, my mom telling me to put the book away before I ran into someone: “Watch where you’re going, Missy!” I would read in the car until motion sickness forced my book closed. Once, I had a book taken from me in my math class when the teacher discovered it secreted in the crease of the open textbook I was supposed to be reading. (Never did like math much…)

In college, I carted my books in toto up the hill to the classroom building, rather than returning to my room between classes to make exchanges. My back arched with the weight of my pack as I trundled across campus to the library. Studying with Adam once, he pulled a text from my bag and remarked over its condition: “This book looks like it got jammed in a paper folder! What have you done to it?!” He refuses to share his books with me to this day, which is fair.

My books are used. In spite of that day in second grade when the librarian taught us to read with clean hands and always turn pages from the upper corner, I bend back covers and crease pages. I read in bed. I prefer soft covers to hard because they better conform to my position as I read. I talk with my print paper friends over a cup of tea; stained pages recall our chats. I am comfortable with my books.

Recently, I had a young mom over to discuss homeschooling and mothering. The subject of children’s books came up, of course, and I led her downstairs to my laundry room, where necessity had forced us to install another bookcase to house the overflow from our library. We crouched in the piles of laundry by the bottom shelf as I pulled titles for her to take home to her kids. “Do you know this one? They’d love this! You haven’t heard of Spier? Oh, well you have to take this one too!” I filled up a grocery bag with books, in all conditions, while she protested it was too much: “But they’re yours! What if my kids damage them?” To which I replied, “Have you seen them?” I think she was surprised by the haphazard piles and worn pages, some without covers. I was the book lady; how did my stash look so disastrous?

I’ve read that you can learn a lot about people from their libraries. That’s why many choose the titles they display in their living rooms to reflect taste, refinement, and intellect. Curating their collection is like crafting their persona – who do they want to be? If you could see my library, I’m afraid that, like my friend, you may be disappointed. It doesn’t look like Blackwells. Instead, it looks like that hole-in-the-wall, used bookstore you just can’t walk past. It invites you in to browse. Not everything there is great. Some are real finds and others misses, but you never leave without something tucked under your arm. Available, affordable, and unpretentious, they invite purchase; so, you fill up your grocery bag with opportunities and head home to explore, hoping you’ve found some new friends – maybe even family.

That’s what books are about – familiarity, family, friends. In my library, I struggle to keep my favorite titles because I just keep giving them away. Like friends I just can’t wait to share with others, I bring them home again and again, even if I already have a copy. I know that they’ll find homes eventually. When I bump into them out in my travels, these books are like landmarks that give me my bearings. They make the world seem smaller, more manageable, and less frightening. “Do not remove the ancient landmarks,” the proverbist enjoins. Did you ever think of why?

Imagine a world without landmarks. I recently had opportunity to visit a neighborhood my family left when I was only eight. It took a long time for me to get my bearings and find my places. Everything looked unfamiliar — strange, small, and colorless — until I found my old house. Then, tracing the paths I wore smooth as a child, the world grew friendly again. Samantha’s house, just across the street. Sonja’s place ten houses down. (It seemed farther then.) The park a stone’s throw from my door with honeysuckle abloom on the chain link fence. I picked one, and its sweetness welcomed me home. These landmarks illuminated that place with color and personality, making it, not just any neighborhood, but mine.

Likewise, books have become landmarks of my imagination: the house at Pooh Corner, Rebecca’s Sunnybrook Farm, that place near Ratty’s riverbank where the wind blows through the willows, the Lone Islands of Narnia where the Seven Lost Lords fell, and beyond them – the Wide World. Their presence, like boundaries, sketch out the shape of the invisible world of ideas that surrounds me; their authors, personalities that shape the Conversation. Their mere presence upon a table invokes home, and the ideas inside their pages turn on the lights, chase away the shadows, and make the whole world mine.

As we begin this new academic year, I’d like to invite you into my library, which, I suppose, is as good as inviting you into my family. Bring your children and come discover with us the boundaries of the imagination. Together we’ll survey the ancient landmarks and map the conversations that shape our world. Let’s make sure our children have a compass for their journeys, good friends to make their way easy, and a light for their paths.