My bookshelves are dust-laden – and with good reason. When it comes to cleaning that part of my home, I suffer from the most tenacious case of avoidance.
The thing is this: On those very rare occasions when I do set out to clean and rearrange my books, I invariably become hopelessly mired. No sooner do I slip a title from the shelf, blow off the dust, and wipe down the cover than I find myself plopped on the floor with legs crossed and my back against the wall, forsaking other responsibilities, and oblivious to the world at large. Pretty soon my lap is overflowing with volumes as I become reacquainted with old friends.
It is as if these books have voices, and each wants to say its piece. "Remember me? I was given to you when you went into the Navy, so that you would never lack for companionship," one recalls. Another pipes up, "I was your first book of poetry, given to you before you learned to love poetry." And a third: "I was the book that made history fascinating to you."
In short, I dare not attempt to clean and organize my books unless I am prepared for the long haul. I cannot have anything else on the day's docket. It's got to be a clear shot from beginning to end, dawn till dusk. Once I get going, it's necessary to give in completely to the experience, as there really is no going back. It's like a wedding reception or Christmas dinner. One cannot say, "I'll do this for an hour and then move on to something else." That's just no way to treat family.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of re-arranging and sprucing up my books only at long intervals are the surprises – or better said, reunions – that occur.
Thanks to my inability to get rid of books – any book, including my "Boy Scout Handbook," copyright 1964 – titles surface like long-lost relatives showing up on one's doorstep.
During my latest book-cleaning expedition, I found one that had fallen behind the shelf: "Tales of Edgar Allen Poe." Not a unique title, but its inscription made it irreplaceable: "With Love from Mom and Dad, Christmas 1965." It was my first "grown-up" book. (I was 11.)
I recall beginning with "The Pit and the Pendulum" and becoming an immediate devotee of Poe. That book, more than any other, made me a reader. The gift of Poe's work was all the more remarkable because neither of my parents were readers, yet they recognized the value of the practice.
There were other finds. The "Exploring Science in Your Home Laboratory" paperback, now yellowed and crumbling, was the book that inspired me to make a stink bomb in our basement. I tried to get it outside before it went off, but...
"Piranhas as Pets" is a slim volume, which belies its power to influence a 15-year-old in search of something different. I did buy that piranha (its name was Joe) and immediately became the most popular kid on the block.
And what's this? A book on the physics of lasers. Filled with indecipherable mathematical equations, I had bought it at a library sale when I was 12, not long after the laser had been invented. I couldn't understand a bit of it, but I did learn what "laser" meant ("Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation").
I even made several attempts to build one, going so far as to order the "plans" for $4.95 from an ad in the back of a Science and Mechanics magazine. The plans arrived, but my heart sank when I read the list of required parts: a ruby rod, a TV set (which I would have to break up), neon, and helium. I remember thinking, "Where am I going to get a ruby rod?" And that was the end of that. But I could dream, couldn't I?
What I wind up with when I empty my bookshelves is a cross section of my personal history. It's like a road cut where one sees all the layers of rock going back through time to the origin of the simplest life forms.
Standing front and center are my current tastes, but as I peel the titles away, I see the path down which I came: my undergraduate fascination with horror and fantasy, my fleeting dalliance with the pop poet Rod McKuen, my high school assignments ("Shane," "Ivanhoe," "The Yearling"), and on back through that Poe book until I arrive at the few existing remnants from my early childhood (my gosh, I've even saved "The Pokey Little Puppy").
The books I've read – and kept – are not just old friends. They are my résumé.