Not much has changed on the bookshelves in the living room of the house I grew up in. All the old stalwarts are there, in the same places they occupied in childhood: Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes, Dickens, The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, assorted picture books, Oystering from New York to Boston. Also the poetry: A Norton anthology or two, A Child’s Garden of Verses, Shel Silverstein, Maya Angelou, Shakespeare’s sonnets, the complete works of Milton (my mother’s hefty tome from college) and so on.
The mere presence of these books on the shelf when I was a child was a type of education for me. There were always a few that I could read, no matter what age I was. And the rest would keep, until I grew into them. But in the meantime, I could read their titles; and I could ask my mother about what was inside. I had the stories before I had the books: I knew the story of Jane Eyre long before I was ready to read it myself. And so, thanks to my mother, I had a sense of literature from a very young age, a sense of a world full of tales.
I had my own bookshelf in my room, of course; but somehow it wasn’t the same. It was full of the things I liked to read at the time, whatever time it was: Sweet Valley Twins, Nancy Drew, The Babysitter’s Club, The Boxcar Children, Beatrix Potter. Books I enjoyed, but because I enjoyed them, and knew them, they held no mystery. Not like the shelves of stories downstairs; the ones that waited for me to grow into them.
What was this mystique? They were both known and unknown at the same time. I had come to understand what books were ontologically—their essence was story, knowledge, pleasure, fear and hope. And so I knew that the books downstairs contained these things, without even knowing what they said. I see now that from an early age books represented something to me that was far more than the sum of ink and paper. They symbolized things beyond myself.
I’ve managed to hold on to some of that, even as an adult; though like many things in adulthood, it bears reminding. One day, while helping move books in the stacks at work, I paused to admire the polished calf and tooled leather bindings, the many languages, the ancient manuscripts all around me. I found myself thinking, “I always wanted to work in a library,” with a pang of longing as if for something that had not come to pass. Wait a second, I thought, you do work in a library. An incredible library, at that—an unparalleled collection of the world’s knowledge from across the ages. When had I stopped associating the library with books, and all the mysteries therein? Like any job, I suppose, one can get bogged down in the minutiae, the politics, what have you. Stop being able to see the library for the books.
It’s part of my daily work practice now to reflect for a moment on the books that surround me; to remind myself of the part of me that loves books, who always wanted to work in a library. Who didn’t even have to read a book to be touched by it; having it near was enough. It’s what makes it okay not being a poet full-time (for now, at least); the books help feed the poetry, help inspire it. Just having the books nearby on the shelves, whispering mystery…