This essay tied for first place in the 3rd Annual Writing Contest by the Haliburton Highlands Writers’ and Editors’ Network and the Agnes Jamieson Gallery in June, 2005


As a person who values logic, it bothers me that I already own more books than I can read before I die even if I live to be 100, and that I continue to buy them. I have books all over my house. Shelves of them. Stacks of them. Baskets of them. Drawers of them. Piles of them. Paperbacks, hardcovers, chapbooks, joke books, tiny books, huge books, reference books, novels, how-to’s, new books, old books, textbooks, antique books. Books with pretty covers, books with ripped covers, books with no covers. I have so many coffee table books that I’d have to buy six more coffee tables if I wanted to display them.

What’s more perplexing is that I own a lot of books I’m not even interested in, but I can’t get rid of them in case someday I might be interested in them, and because, well … they’re books. Tiny microcosms of word-induced life. Mini literary planets inhabited by real and imaginary characters. Living ones and dead ones, zombies who spring up off the pages and prance through my addled mind like Puck in a fairie wood, wreaking havoc with sleep and work.

I think I need therapy; my emotional attachment to my books may qualify as obsessive. For example, sometimes I fondle them. There, I admitted it. I love to stroke the glossy covers on my modern hardbacks, imagining how the author must feel picking up a smooth clone of the baby she pumped out during a word-obsessed labour of love, and knowing that through the copulation of ideas and language she conceived the remarkable offspring we call “book.”

I also get a high from running my fingertips across the bumpy texture of the binding and gold-embossed spines on my 1917 Mark Twain collection. I conjure up images of who may have owned the set before my dad found it in a flea market 30 years ago and gave it to me. In addition, book covers provide visual stimulation that fuels my obsession. Sometimes I stare at the cover of The Alienist by Caleb Carr, or the book poemcrazy by Susan D. Wooldridge, and wonder why I don’t own flowing black clothing like a cape or a big, wide coat. How glorious it must feel to grasp the outer seams of such a garment and swing it into the air, or to have a stride so long that the fabric would flare out as I flow down the street.

I’m also enraptured by the handwriting in the fronts and margins of some of the old tomes I’ve picked up at yard sales. My copy of Short Stories and Essays selected by W. J. Alexander, Emeritus Professor of English Literature, University College, bears the copyright date of 1928 by the Minister of Education of Ontario, and was stamped by Cloke’s Bookshop in Hamilton. On the inside cover, former owner S. G. Whitelock signed the book with a fountain pen, and made notes throughout the pages with a pencil. Who was S. G. Whitelock, I wonder, and why did she/he part with this book?

My craving for sensuous stimulation from books is boundless. When I want to relax, I open my 1950 copy of There is a Tide by Agatha Christie, hold it up to my face and inhale the scent of the libraries of my youth. My shoulders droop and I let go of pent-up tension as I smell the aged paper’s sweet mustiness that I associate with dusty shelves, card catalogues and Dewey Decimal numbers. When I open my 1881 copy of Our Deportment or the Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society by John H. Young, A.M., I breathe in a different brand of staleness. This scent hints at a long-ago private home library, where the emanations of paper, leather and cardboard used to mingle with the aroma of onions cooking in a far-off kitchen.

Of course, there’s the satisfaction I get from the reading itself—from discovering how different authors packaged letters, syllables, words and paragraphs to create a whole that is always greater than the sum of its parts. Despite the books I own that I have yet to read, I sometimes re-read pet tomes. Now and then I re-enjoy John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and imagine I hear Owen’s coarse voice and see his wrecked body. Or I open up Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and experience once again how that novel breathes life into the jungle as a main character by inviting every one of my senses to dare to enter. Or I pick off the shelf my favourite book of all time, Twain’s Letters from the Earth and think back to high school when my Grade 11 English teacher warned me, “Whatever you do, don’t read Letters from the Earth.” He knew that because he told me not to, I’d go out as soon as I could and get the book—which I did. I have read it numerous times, and I marvel at how much Twain’s writing influenced my philosophy of life and views on religion.

Adding to the illogic of my book obsession, I do not treat all my babies equally. I avoid breaking the spines on most of them, and I don’t fold down page corners to keep my place. There are a few, however, that I have bent until they sit on a desk flat, marked up with pen, inundated with yellow stickies and shoved into enough backpacks and bags to introduce little rips to the edges of the corners. These are the books I use when I teach writing. I remember when I met Pat Schneider in 2002, I asked her to sign my copy of The Writer as an Artist: A New Approach to Writing Alone and With Others, and she was touched when she thumbed through the dog-eared, oft-turned pages. The thought that her book played such an important role in my teaching meant a lot to her.

For me, books also represent love. My three most cherished volumes were gifts from family members who share my addiction. My husband of 32 years knows that instead of flowers, perfume, jewelry or candy, I’d rather receive a book as a gift for any occasion. After three decades of watching me read obituaries and speculate about the deceased from their tiny write-ups in the paper, for my 50th birthday he gave me The Last Word: The New York Times Book of Obituaries and Farewells. I was and am still fascinated by its mini-biographies of well-known and not-so-well-known people such as Wrong Way Corrigan and Helen Bunce, the Mitten Lady. The book is priceless to me because of its content, and because of the caring that went into choosing it.

I was reminded how obvious my interest in obituaries has been over the years, when my grown daughter presented me with a copy of Famous Last Words – Fond Farewells, Deathbed Diatribes and Exclamations Upon Expiration compiled by Ray Robinson. I asked what was the occasion, and she said, “No occasion – I was in a gift store in Uxbridge and saw this book and thought, Mom HAS to have that.” I’ve read the book twice, and I love it all the more because my daughter knew how much it would mean to me. The third in my collection of the heart is The Ventriloquist by Red Skelton. It’s a signed limited edition copy that my now 29-year-old son and his wife bought for me in Highway Bookstore in Cobalt, Ontario, back in 1999 when they were still engaged. They were driving north along the highway from North Bay and noticed a bookstore in the middle of nowhere, and of course had to stop and explore. They said as soon as they found the Red Skelton book, they figured I HAD to have it. They had heard me speak of Skelton as a childhood idol and one of my favourite comics of all time. In addition to enjoying the book for the heartrending story Skelton wrote, I was and am touched that in the middle of nowhere, a book inspired thoughts of me in my children.

Books are so much more than “just” books. As I grow older, they take on an even deeper importance in my life—perhaps because I have published my first book on writing, and I am in the process of writing a novel. As I tap the computer keys that animate my characters and ideas, I keep books in view so that I am reminded of what my work may someday mean to others. Many people dream of exotic vacations, prestigious awards, fabulous love affairs. I fantasize about a stranger somewhere fondling my epidermis, breaking my spine, writing all over me and storing me on a shelf with other loved ones.