Surrounded by Books: A Love Story
by Leah K.S. Holz
I’m very lucky to teach, read, and write for a living. Right now on my writing plate I have an abstract. A conference paper. An article. A dissertation. Give me a research project and I’m good to go. This post, however, is refreshingly out of my comfort zone. I’ve recently had an urge to write a memoir about my childhood, with each chapter a short story told about a book. I have stories about phone books, photo books, music books, book reports… you name it, I have a story. It’s a way to preserve captured memories through these precious objects.
I’m writing this post in a big-box, corporate bookstore, literally surrounded by books. I like to support the little guys, but I like to come here to work and wander around the books on my breaks. I scan the sections for interesting titles. I select a few and skim through. Darker the Night, Easy as Pie Crosswords, Wild West Women. The possibilities are endless. I do my best work when I’m encircled by books. There’s something extraordinary about sharing the same air as all those physical bodies whose contents hum around me, waiting to be known.
My mom read to my brother and me when we were little. I memorized books so I could “read” them back to myself. I still remember the time before I could read when I was almost there and realized (as much as a 4-year-old can) that I was at the cusp of something awesome. Whole worlds were ahead of me and I was about to embark on a journey that would influence my life with each turn of the page.
My family wasn’t wealthy but I was surrounded by books in my childhood home. I inherited my pack-rat sensibilities (at least in regards to books) from my parents who inherited it from their parents. Children’s books, piano books, Russian books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, antique books, cookbooks. A whole wall in the living room that was a built-in bookshelf.
Countless trips to the library. My dad, forever the jokester, requested books from other libraries and led me to believe that he had read every single book our library owned and now had to order them from other places so he could slowly but surely read all of their books too. The awful moment when, as a child, I realized there would never be enough time in my life to read everything I’d like to read. I became obsessed with an idea from a T.V. show on Nickelodeon called The Journey of Allen Strange, where Allen, an alien, could read an entire book in seconds, just by placing his hand on the cover. I still fantasize about this possibility.
I was an introverted, fiercely independent child. I was provided with ample opportunities to get lost in books. …Long car rides to visit far-away family, lazy summer days at the lake, dangling my toes over the edge of the dock with book-in-hand, freezing snow days in a blanket fort with a flashlight… I never dreamt of fluffy, white wedding dresses or of what my profession would be when I grew up. My best friends and I would dream of houses with secret passages and our very own reading nooks tucked away in hidden spaces. I dreamt of being surrounded by books and their undiscovered mysteries. Our love for books hasn’t changed –- one of those friends and I recently confided to each other that we still have our 14-digit childhood library card numbers memorized. Because… just in case we need it. Our magic keys to the secret garden.
I own a lot of books. I started collecting them in college, dreaming of having a large library in a future office and home. I moved across the country for a graduate program and rented a tiny studio apartment. I insisted on scraping away every penny to buy as many of the books on my reading lists as I could. I borrowed countless library books for my research. My books began to encroach on my living space and in lieu of returning them well before their deadlines, I stacked them up and used them as a table. I even used them as free weights for exercise. At the end of my program I hauled them back to the library in suitcases. My family flew out for my graduation and I enlisted their help bringing back the ones I owned in their carry-ons and extra checked bags. No book left behind. The first thing I did after taking my M.A. exams? I procured a “dessert” book and treated myself to a fun read.
I’ve lived in Colorado for five years now and I still have boxes of books coming to me from surprising places. Boxes of music books, textbooks, novels, dictionaries, anything and everything in French or remotely related to the Francophone world. My dad volunteers at his local library. Every summer they have a book sale and every summer he calls and asks what kinds of books I’d like him to set aside for me. I turned 30 and my brother’s gift to me was a box of World War Two Era French books that, thanks to his extroverted social manner, was given to him by an old man he befriended at his local watering hole whose French wife had recently passed away. He thrives off these interactions and knows that I thrive off being surrounded by books.
I have an e-reader and I listen to a lot of books on tape. I like that technology has made it easier to travel (with books). But, like many other life-long book enthusiasts, I’ll never give up the real deal. I’m a sensory-oriented person. That slightly dusty smell of the paper, the soft, buzzy breeze that puffs up and grazes my face as I move my thumb along the crisp edge of the pages. The powerful weight of the story in my hands.
They’ve followed me, I’ve sought them out, and we’ve been here together all along in that ideal place from my childhood dreams: happily and constantly surrounded by books.
Leah K. S. Holz is a PhD candidate in French Literature at CU Boulder. She works on feminist narratology and novels by immigrant women writers in France in the inter-war period and beyond. She lives with her husband and their dog on the Front Range and likes to spend time traveling, listening to podcasts, hiking, and, of course, reading. You can find her hanging around local libraries and bookstores and on Twitter @LeahKSHolz.