The Serendipity of My Family’s Library

The first time I held a Kindle in my hand I almost dropped it.  I have small hands and keeping the Kindle in its little cover required some maneuvering that I am not used to while reading.  I finally figured out the most comfortable way to hold the thing and read my way through Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs easily enough, (though not knowing what page I was on while reading was MADDENING!)  Now, I knew that I wanted to read Lorrie Moore’s book before I headed to Mexico on this trip so I purchased it instantaneously and quite satisfactorily.  All in all the Kindle experience worked fine for me.  But, then I finished the book and I didn’t know what I wanted to read next.  I could’ve looked at Amazon’s recommendations, I could’ve downloaded The Help which my sister in -law was reading the old fashioned way, but staring at that blank gray screen I felt totally disconnected from the experience of choosing a book.  And for me picking my next great read is part of the whole reading process.

I grew up in a brownstone in Brooklyn NY.  What does this have to do with reading?  Well, brownstones were built back when people had libraries in their homes.  Entire rooms with floor to ceiling shelving just begging to be filled with books.  Our library even had a billiard table in it that my parents promptly moved to the basement.  This room with its leaded glass bay window, mahogany paneling and built in cushioned benches was the epitome of an old fashioned home library (oh yeah, that’s also where our TV was lest you think the hours spent in there were only for serious bookworming.)  Fortunately my parents had a lot of books.  Real books not those weird fake ones that people fill their McMansion libraries with nowadays.  My dad had a collection of the classics with these blue spines and gold letters: Moby Dick, The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Scarlet Letter, etc.  We had both Shakespeare (from my dad’s high school days I suppose) and weird medical books because my dad is a doctor.  Shelf upon shelf was stocked with nonfiction like World of Our Fathers; a book I later realized is in every single Jewish home in America if your parents were born in the 30s and 40s, and fiction like the complete Sherlock Holmes.

That library was an endless source of discovery and joy.  I read books I had no business reading like when I was 10 and read Rabbit, Run.  I didn’t know what I was reading, but I liked it because I knew it was not meant for me.  I also found Isaac Asimov in those shelves and Charles Dickens – I still remember the fear and confusion upon reading Oliver Twist and seeing Fagin referred to as a “dirty Jew.”  All of those experiences of literary happenstance, of stumbling into a world just because I decided to pull that book off the shelf that day shaped both the writer and person I became.

I have no illusions about the gift of having all of those books at my fingertips.  I was lucky to have a parent who not only read a ton but also kept all those books.  And lucky to have parents who kept buying new books for us.  When I loved Oliver Twist I was allowed to buy every Dickens book I could get my hands on when we made our next pilgrimage to the Barnes and Noble on 19th Street in “the city.”  Same thing for the Brontes, and Jane Austen, Tolstoy and Judy Blume. (Though Wifey was not the Judy Blume book an 11 year old should be reading!)  Whenever a new author was discovered in the family library it more often than not led to the opening up of whole new literary obsession.

This is what I hate about the Kindle and ereaders in general.  I am not one of those technophobes who decries the rise of the ereader.  Hell, my husband even works for a company that makes one of the best ones around in my opinion.  No, I get it.  I understand the convenience, the speed, the greener side of things, but I don’t care.  I do not want Amazon’s recommendations.  I do not want to jump from link to link in the hope of finding something that sounds interesting.  And I certainly don’t want to see someone’s book club selection.  I want that sense of connection between me and the book; that little moment when a spine catches my eye and I slide the book out from between its shelf-mates, crack open the pages and begin to read with no expectations at all.

So ereader or no ereader I will always make sure to have mountains of books in my home, because even though my children have certainly inherited my love of reading, I want to make sure they experience the joy of stumbling upon a book you didn’t even know you were looking for and maybe, possibly falling into a whole new (old) world.

How do you choose your books?  Do you have a favorite childhood reading memory or a book that you discovered “by accident?”

This is an original post and is featured on this month’s Yahoo Motherboard!

The New York Times recently ran a post confirming the importance, and even the educational edge, granted by a home library!

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7 replies on “The Serendipity of My Family’s Library”

  1. Thanks for one’s marvelous posting! I really enjoyed reading it, you will be a great author.I will make certain to bookmark your blog and definitely will come back later in life. I want to encourage one to continue your great work, have a nice evening!

  2. I love happening upon a book I wouldn’t otherwise read. When I am invited over to someone’s house for dinner or a playdate or whatever, I love scanning their book shelves. What is on them says some thing about the family. I think books are the most beautiful way to decorate a room.

    I am really surprised by how much I am loving my Kindle. Simply put: it is making me read more which is such a gift. It’s so lightweight and portable. I carry it with me everywhere and when I have a second to read, I have my “book” right there. When reading at night in bed, I’d prefer a book book. But on the bus, waiting for appointments, grabbing a sandwich on my lunch hour, I’m always excited to have the Kindle at my quick disposal.

    The worst thing for me about the Kindle, though: I can’t stand not knowing what page I am on!!! I don’t care that I’ve 58% through the book!!! I want to know how many pages I’ve read!

  3. While we had a plenty of books around our house when I was a kid, we didn’t have a fancy library like you. But, my Mom was a librarian, and I kind of always thought that the whole public library belonged to me personally. Like you, my Mom didn’t care what I was reading as long as I was reading (which led me to read a slew of terrible and scorching romance novels in sixth grade, such as Angelique).

    I agree that choosing a book online is a completely different experience than the tactile sensation of picking one out at a book store. I like feel the heft, see the dimensions and look over the font of a real book. Sometimes I like to see the Amazon recommendations (usually when I’m doing research). Since you don’t want their recommendation, I’m not sure you’ll want mine, but I’ll give it to you anyway. If you haven’t read Anne Fadiman’s collection of essays called Ex Libris, I highly recommend it. I particularly liked the essay about marrieds having to merge their libraries. Good reading. I’m jealous of your Kindle.

    1. I will definitely get your recommendation! (At my local library – my favorite place that has recently reopened after 2 years of renovation). It’s funny, my house was definitely “fancy” just because it was a brownstone built in the late 1800s. But, it was that falling apart behind the scenes fancy. The library had an old corduroy couch and a 19″ sony tv on a cart right along with the mosaic tiled fireplace. But, no matter what a room like that makes books seem very special!

  4. Wholeheartedly agree. I have yet to handle a Kindle, but I can’t imagine it’s the same as cuddling up to an old paperback with crumbs and coffee stains worked into the spine. My books sustain some abuse for sure. But there’s a tangibility there, almost an intimacy that would be lost in e-format. I guess in time we’ll adapt to yet another technological advancement and down the line we will hardly be able to remember the musty smell of books and book stores — just as many old school writers wouldn’t DREAM of going from writing longhand to typing directly onto a laptop.
    PS: I also just finished Lorrie Moore’s latest, and even splashed out for the hardback while they still exist. I like seeing it there in my library, akin to a notch on the literary bedpost!

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