We had a friend over for dinner the other night. Even though we are all fully vaccinated, it felt a little risky, but this was a rare balmy winter evening so we sat on the drafty three-season porch for a while and then moved in by the fire, with a window cracked.
My husband and I had done the requisite tidying up — dusting, vacuuming, clearing all of my junk and computer and papers off the dining room table. But I can't do anything about the books. They are everywhere, and all I can hope is that they sort of blend into the landscape.
Our bookshelves are crammed full, with new additions lying horizontally across the tops of those already shelved. The rest are on the floor. I make the piles as neat as possible, shove them against the wall, hope nobody stumbles over them.
Books make a house a home, don't they? In which case our house is as homey as it gets.
As we hunker down for a long Minnesota winter, I like to think the thousands of books help insulate us from the cold. And yet sometimes I wonder why I keep them. What possible purpose is served by hanging onto 40-year-old books that I haven't cracked in decades?
Of course I have my reasons.
- I haven't read them all. It's very hard to give away a book I haven't yet read.
- I am nostalgic, and sometimes I need to re-read something at a moment's notice. I went on a sentimental bender earlier this fall, reading beloved novels of my youth by Noel Streatfeild (she wrote the "Shoe" books) and John Verney. You know that feeling — COVID and politics and everything else was getting to be too much, and I needed something to read at night that would make me feel better. I already owned some, hopped online and bought the rest, and I can only hope that a similar impulse hits again in a few decades. If it does, I'm ready.
- I keep multiple copies of books I love so that I can give them away. It's why, for instance, I have two copies of Louise Erdrich's new novel, "The Sentence." I'll keep the autographed copy forever, but the other one? Someday someone will come over for dinner, we'll get to talking, the book will come up — and voila! I will pull it off the shelf and hand it over. This is something I love to do.
- I keep books because just looking at them, just seeing their spines lined up on shelves, makes me happy. Books represent possibilities of so many kinds. Any time I want to, I can take that copy of "Hamnet" off the shelf and jump into Shakespeare's world. Any time I want to, I can pull down "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush" and be in the Afghan mountains with the great Eric Newby and his dry, self-deprecating wit.
That balmy evening, our dinner went well. We talked late into the night about a lot of things in a rambling way, including what we were reading now and what we wished to read. When the evening was over, our friend left with two books.
Why do you keep books? Conversely, why do you not keep books? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org and include your name and city.
Laurie Hertzel is senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. On Twitter: @StribBooks.