The most passionate and at once the most ridiculously stupid argument I have ever had with another human being was with an ex-boyfriend. It was not about another woman, another man, a drinking problem, trust issues or any of the standard relationship bullshit. It was not about politics or religion or sex, though those are often among the best and most thrilling of arguments one can have–with the right people and the right degree of inebriation, of course. No, this argument was over books.
Even as young as twenty years old, I had a significant sized library. I have no idea where my love of books came from, seeing as how my parents had a copy of the Bible, a large notched dictionary and not much more book-wise in the house where I grew up. I had my own collection as a child, of course. My parents knew the importance of Little Golden books like The Pokey Little Puppy and Hiram’s Red Shirt. But unlike other bibliophiles, I was never faced with the full on temptation of an adult library present in my own home. If I wanted to read a book, it was my own. If I wanted a new book to read, it meant a trip to the library, or eventually, when there was cash in hand, to the bookstore.
When I was very young and my parents took me to the library, I would ask for the same Dr. Seuss book every single time. The Lorax. I have never owned a copy of this book, myself, although I often recommend it and if I remember correctly, have given it as a gift once or twice. Perhaps my constant need to bring this particular book home from the library every time we visited indicates an early desire to have my favorite books close at hand for future rereading at will. But I never considered myself a true book lover, a bibliophile, until much later.
In high school, I found a place among the artists and theatre nerds. My close-knit group of friends included writers, performers, and above all, voracious readers. I was all of these things as well, young and trying to find a voice and a place to fit. For us, it was more fun to frequent the local used book and music stores than to even think about the types of parties high school kids are better known for: loud music, kegs of beer, passing joints, etc. We saw movies, after reading the books first, of course, and stood outside the theater for hours after the doors locked behind us debating the subtle nuances of the film and how it compared to what we remembered from the book. We’d have amusing debates at Denny’s or George Webbs over coffee, eggs, or pie. And when we had parties, there might have been music, but the best part was always the conversation that could actually be heard above the melodies. My friends played chess and had bookshelves in their rooms. I began to want bookshelves, too.
When we went to those secondhand bookstores, I bought books. I often underfed myself at school to save my lunch money for the ability to bring books home. I hid the erotica under the bed and piled pretty classics on my dresser. I got my bookshelves and proceeded to overflow them. I had piles of books around my room, under my bed, in the closet, more than my small bedroom could hold. Fortunately, by the time my library reached critical mass for that room, I was on the verge of moving, of packing my things and storing them until I could give them a permanent home of their own. This was about the time I had the argument with my ex.
I was living with my parents in Milwaukee, and he was in the Navy in training at the Great Lakes naval base in Illinois. I don’t remember what started the discussion, but I remember trying to make a point that he just didn’t seem to understand. It must have involved the anticipated transporting of my books and their suddenly overwhelming quantity. But these books, I tried to tell him, are alive for me. How could I separate them, leave them behind? I couldn’t possibly sell more than a few, the ones bought in haste, perhaps, and never once cracked open, or ones that were poorly written or had stories I found dull or not to my taste. But most of them would have to come with me, no matter where I went in the world. It was that simple, yet he persisted in telling me that I couldn’t possibly be so extremely attached to so many books at one time. To me, this was the equivalent of telling a mother that there was no way she could love more than one child. I remember how I nearly cried from frustration on the phone with this man, a man I had managed to fall in love with, trying to make him see.
But he did not see. He couldn’t understand this fundamental part of me, my connection with the world through my books. My connections to my family, to my friends, to myself through the covers, no matter their condition, through the row of spines, vertical on the shelf, to the thousands and millions of words contained on their pages, no matter how faded or torn some of them were. My connection to everyone who has read these books before, and through them, to the books I haven’t been fortunate enough to encounter yet but anticipated with every turn of a leaf. He tried to tell me that books were just objects, just things, that they don’t care who they belong to or how they are treated, abandoned or given away. I couldn’t have disagreed more. I don’t think I have felt so strongly about anything since. But my side of the argument was less tangible than his. I knew this, but I never stopped fighting, not in my heart. But I think that after a few hours in a defensive state of frenzy that was the exhausting height of this argument, I was finally the one to throw in the towel. I knew that I hadn’t won, and I was not okay with my loss to his logic, but in the end, I recognized something. And it took me some time before I realized what that something was–that this man, so dismissive of my books and my passion for them, could never be my match.
There is a reason that I married a man with a library of his own. There is a reason that my husband’s logic falters when he attempts to convince me to get rid of some deadwood in my library, ours. There is a reason that a man with little understanding of the true value of books couldn’t hold onto a girl like me. Loving a book-hearted girl means loving her library, or, at the very least, it means never making her feel as though you don’t.