The books we keep for memory’s sake

Books are like songs and smells. They evoke memories of rooms, faces, voices, quick visions of little scenes in our own lives.

I’m not talking about the books we write, but the ones we’ve read. The ones we hold onto. The ones that pile up, collect dust, slip out of mind for years at a time.

And then we move, or–God forbid—clean, or wonder what should go in the yard sale, and wham! There it is. An old love found again.

I look around my office at the shelves.

The Far Lands by James Norman Hall—Suddenly I’m propped on my bed pillows on James Avenue in Minneapolis, algebra homework pushed aside. A historical fiction of the first migrations from Asia to the Hawaiian islands. Someone had left it at the high school lost and found. I read it twice that year alone.

I’ve been carrying around  Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow since I lived in that walkup around the corner from the el in Chicago. It’s one of the few old scifi books I’ve read more than once and when I pulled it out of the moving box a month ago, a paperback brown with age,  I promised myself I’d read it again. When you Google Leigh Brackett you get a long list of the movies she worked on as well as the books. She was versatile, brilliant, great.

Ginger Man. Catch-22. same apartment with its tiny back porch bedroom. The apartment where I lost my heart and my virginity to two different people.

The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald. One of those writers who, along with Christie, drew me into the genre. I’m sitting on that awful brown couch in my furnished rental near Lincoln Park, thinking I would like to write something like that someday.

Journey to A Woman, by Ann Bannon. The Well of Loneliness. Same place. A pair of black kittens climbing the drapes.

I pick up an Anne Tyler book and I’m sitting on my deck in Fairfax, California. I look up from the book and I see Mount Tamalpais.

Elmore Leonard brings back the little house in Oakland. My living room. A philodendron plant hanging a foot from my head that banged into the wall when a small earthquake hit. The same room, hit by a much bigger quake, and the yortzite  candle I had just brought home from my mother’s funeral, a month before, flew off the top of the Franklin stove and shattered.

Maybe someone just picked up one of my books and remembers a warm day at the beach, a date that ended in love, a house where she felt safe, a day when she was happy. And yes, I’m writing this on Valentine’s day.


10 Responses

  1. What a wonderful theme, Shelley. I have all my old college philosophy texts—Cardinal paperbacks, for $.35 – $.50 each!

    And now you have me smiling that someone might actually be keeping one of my books. Thanks.

  2. Hi, Camille! I’m sure someone is. Let’s hold that thought for both of us.

  3. Nice post! I have so many books I can’t bear to be without, but thinking back I’m not sure I can tie them to any particular thing going on in my life at that time. But they are trusted friends who I know will never let me down…there is that.

  4. Thanks, Mel–hold the book in your hand and sniff the air 🙂 And speaking of books…

  5. The problem comes when I hang on to books just for the memories they evoke, even tho I know I won’t read them again, b/c I’m not the same person anymore who first read and loved them. That kind of book is taking up too much space on my shelves.

    I keep all the books I have by the authors we publish, to check on earlier book formats, designs, reviews, facts, etc. But those are books I’d keep anyway b/c I love them, and usually pleasant memories are associated w/ them too.

    • I think keeping books for the memories makes for a crowded house but they also reflect a crowded life and the layers of experience. I’m fascinated by those memories and how vivid they can be.

  6. A lovely valentine from you to us, Shelley–thank you. I love the way you weave books and places together–pure nostalgia. I brought 3/4 of my myriad books from the old house to the new this past summer, and like to just look at them and say their titles aloud and vow to reread as many as I’ve time for. But not enough time, alas, for 1000 books!

  7. Never enough time. I know what you mean. But I still spend half my moving money schlepping books around.

  8. A very evocative post. My house is sinking slowly under the weight of memory books. I was reading The Woman in White when JFK was assassinated. I’ve never been able to finish reading it–or throw it away. Maybe the funniest relics of the past are my Georgette Heyer paperbacks that my nephew’s gerbil nibbled when he escaped for three days. Little sawtooth marks all down The Grand Sophy.


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