Monday, July 12, 2010

Confessions of an Incorrigible Book Buyer

Hi. My name is Pam and I buy books.

I often describe myself as an old broken-down English major because I learned to love and appreciate literature at that impressionable time in my life, and although my tastes have changed over the years, it's a habit I can't break. There's something compelling about a story, but really, as someone said, the meaningful experience in all literature takes place in the white spaces between the words. Maybe that's where story and reader connect.

A defining moment came the day AFTER graduation. I'd been through the English majors reading list, passed the exam and had my diploma in hand. As I passed through the campus bookstore and looked down that long line of racks and racks of paperback novels, I nearly swooned. I could read! I was literate! More importantly, I wasn't tied to a list of books somebody else required me to read. At last I could choose for myself. It was in the days when an expensive paperback might cost as much as $3, and those were no-nos for me, but I remember taking eight books to the checkout and spending a whopping, unheard of, budget-busting $12. This is significant because I was blissfully unemployed at the time.

Nevertheless, I went home and began to devour my treasures with the degree of self-indulgence one can only know when one is bone-weary of doing what other people want and expect one to do. These were all the best sellers that I'd agonizingly ignored while I was finishing the reading list to pass the test and graduate, but now it was my turn – nay, my right – to get caught up with the world of popular fiction.

In the years since graduation, I have not been inclined to borrow books from the public library because it's too restrictive; it puts me again on somebody else's timetable. I want the freedom to put a book down for a few weeks and pick it up later when the mood strikes again, to glance at it occasionally and know that inside the covers is a treat waiting for me. I have a reader friend who sometimes has as many as five books going at once, fiction as well as non-fiction, and she keeps them nicely balanced in her mind.

No, I'm the kind of reader who must possess books. When we moved last year after 33 years in one place, we passed a lot of our books on to other people because we knew space would be limited in our new place. In fact, in our old home, the bathrooms were the only places that didn't have bookshelves. In our much smaller new place, our books nearly filled the three big new bookcases we bought, but I still buy books. I'll decide later which ones are keepers and pass the others on to friends who will appreciate them, where they'll have a good home and be loved.

Unfortunately, or fortunately if you're the author of books I buy, I have what I'd call story staying power. I like books that go on into sequels and trilogies. I'm even into one series that goes to a fourth book, and another series that's supposed to have seven eventually. It's like making new friends.

As for the classics, I like Dickens, the Brontes and Austen interpreted and illustrated for television – perhaps it's due to a shrinking attention span no longer compatible with that prose style – but the characters are always welcome in my imagination, and I don't feel compelled to possess these volumes in my own library. My favorite novel, which I cannot do without, is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I purchased a new copy recently because I'd worn out the original I'd had since college. No one writes more luscious prose.

In our new place, I've found a home in our local book club, reading some books I probably wouldn't have chosen for myself, and being pleasantly surprised. I'm just glad I don't have to analyze the plot and the characters and the subplots and the socio-political influences and write papers about them and worry if I've second-guessed the teacher sufficiently to get a good grade. I can simply enjoy them as new friends. On second thought, maybe I should have majored in something I didn't love so much. It was a lot of hoop-jumping to fit somebody else's view of what an English major should know.

But that's another thought for another time. For now... My name is Pam and I buy books.


Megan said...

i loved this.

jww said...

I remember being in Israel the first few months and truly feeling what it is like to be illiterate. (Signs in Italian or German I could at least guess at... Hebrew made me truly illiterate.) It was the first time I could truly feel grateful that I'm literate. I, too, prefer to buy books. I'm picky because I want to know that I'll like them, but I like to keep them and mark favorite passages. I've always thought the best thing I could do for my kids is teach them how to read. The other night Preston came to me and said, "Mom, is 'A Tale of Two Cities' good? I REALLY need something to read." This is my 13-yr-old son asking if he can read Charles Dickens during the summer!! I think he is a book buyer, too (the book really has to be his own), because when I showed him the used copy I have, he declined because someone had taken notes all over in it. I agreed--it was too distracting to have all those notes for a first read. But I still thought it was really cool that he ASKED.