Winnowing Books; Treasuring Stories

We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures. ~ Thornton Wilder

My home holds hundreds of books; it’s like living in a library, with a kitchen and beds, a couch, tables, and chairs—but mostly, books. They are mine, although there are many that Phillip has read and valued. He is far less tied to the material than I and rarely feels the need to keep a book he has read.

I am an insatiable addict with a jones for story. Garrison Keillor said, “You get older and realize there are no answers, just stories. And how we love them.”  Except, for me, the passion for story started at birth and has only increased. Before we could read, we were read to, frequently. The library outing was a weekly ritual before and after word decoding skills were mastered.

I am congenitally bibliophilic.

Reading, writing, and storytelling were the other Holy Trinity of my childhood, and nothing has altered their prominence in the course of my lengthening history. My mother was a gifted teacher who revered books all of her life. I am convinced she began reading to me when I was in utero. In my memory, Mama is either reading from a pile of novels, biographies, and her beloved English mysteries, or listening to “Chapter a Day” on NPR. She never returned from a trip to the store without stories about the people who stood in line with her and we would marvel at how quickly—and deeply—she elicited these. When we gathered with her sister and brothers, stories about their childhood and hometown community flowed for hours.

My father was a Journalism graduate who had edited his college newspaper and moved into a career that depended upon his facility for organizing, creating, editing, and sharing information. The latter half of his career was spent traveling to hundreds of college campuses as head of his large company’s corporate recruiting department. When he came home, I’d join him at the kitchen table and listen to stories of his travels. My father would describe the flights, hotels, restaurants, placement office professionals, campuses, and then the dozens of job applicants, usually engineers and accountants, whose so-far-biographies were encapsulated in hopeful resumes, piled on the table for review.

He taught me that a list of superlative achievements wasn’t nearly as interesting (or likely to secure employment) as a story of how one young man had to care for his parents, work a part-time job, and complete his studies, or another applicant was “all A’s and no sense,” or how this person was “well-rounded” and why, and that person was “too narrow to succeed on a corporate team,” while another job required a singular-focused “odd duck.”

I guess my father matched their stories with his employer’s needs, and was talented at this, because he listened to and appreciated the unique value of each person’s narrative. I remember my father as also gifted in helping rejected candidates understand that their stories wouldn’t proceed well at the job they’d applied for, and that there were better stories to find in order for their gifts and happiness to be challenged and grow.

Regardless of the titles and disciplines of my own jobs, for me they’ve all been immersions in hearing, creating, sharing, exploring, and collecting story: The meaning, spirit, and adventures of life; the wins and losses, the choices and directions, the lessons, surprises, twists and mysteries, the cliff-hangers, comedies, and tragedies.

My father’s career necessitated moving. A lot. The “things-to-do” list never varied when we explored our new geography. First, my parents investigated and chose the parish we’d join and therefore, the parish school we’d attend. Then, they’d locate the nearest public library, which finally led to the decision regarding the neighborhood that best accommodated all of these. (My mother’s second passion, like mine, was for home architecture and design, so this step involved thousands more.) But always that order: church/school, library, home…for me, the theme became my life’s through-line: spirituality, learning, story, and family (broadly defined to include 4-leggeds and friends).

Often, before the new house was completely settled, we children would be taken to the library to acquire our library card (oh, precious powerful magical wonder!) and then—YES!— load the car with the virgin cache of our new library’s offerings. Settled into a corner of our current bedrooms with our borrowed treasures meant my parents could proceed with the unpacking and arrangement of less interesting possessions, unhindered by our interruptions.

Books have been my touchstones, companions, and comfort throughout my life. They are place-markers in the infinite flow of existence. We enter them and co-create worlds with the author and other readers. Books thus become our lifelong friends; their presence alone conjures beloved memories, places, and experiences that rival and often become associated with those lived outside their imagined realities.

But I have made a commitment to a simpler life, and that means I must winnow, again and again, through possessions I no longer need, which includes tackling my many bookcases. A New Year seems an appropriate time for such sorting. I slowly create the “give away” and “keep” piles; Phillip reviews; we negotiate; and out goes another box of books, off to St. Vinnie’s and—oh, how I hope—a good home.

There are authors and books—probably too many—with which I will never part, but there have also been reading passions that went excitingly deep, but in the long run, didn’t last, and I need to reassess, make peace, part company wherever necessary…it’s a way of reorganizing my spiritual geography as well, and always an insightful exercise and practice.

But oh, the hours and decisions it requires! More than once this past weekend, Phillip discovered me surrounded by piles of books (holding one or two as well), immobilized by indecision. But I’ll keep at it. These are my sacred relationships and no one else can do it for me.

When my mother made her last move to our home, her books, furniture, and possessions, except for clothes and a few articles, were put into storage. We thought this would be temporary, until she found a home she liked, but illness made this transition astonishingly and quickly her last.

I learned that sorting through the belongings of someone you love is almost too much to bear, but I retained hope that my love for, and familiarity with, her possessions conferred the sacredness they and the event deserved.

I do not want anyone I love to have that task at all, regarding our possessions, but certainly not to the degree I can take responsibility for making decisions now. And I think it would be even worse, perhaps, to have a stranger, ignorant of all the hallowed memory and meaning, pawing through books and fragments only Phillip and I knew as treasures.

So the Great Sifting continues. It’s time to lighten up, make way for new adventures, remind myself again that the books and the stories are elementally different things: the books, like everything I own, are objects for passing on to others, when I’m ready; the stories will always and forever be mine.

Fellow bibliophiles might enjoy this homage:

The Joy of Books 

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7 thoughts on “Winnowing Books; Treasuring Stories

  1. I have a growing passion for books – especially old, worn-down ones that have seen the better light of day many, many years ago. My goal is to have and collect as many as I can over the course of my life. I’m not doing too badly. My latest addition is a very, very well worn 1953 edition of Tennyson’s poetry and plays for an absolute bargain of a price!

    I want to give any and all old books a new lease of life once I find them. I think that’s the least I can do for them. Your post reminded me of how much I truly love them with the line “Books have been my touchstones, companions, and comfort throughout my life. They are place-markers in the infinite flow of existence.” — Absolutely true. 🙂

    Thank you for a wonderful post.
    Best wishes,

    Eve

  2. Oh Kitty, Twin daughters from different mothers we are indeed. Thanks for writing this. I know it’s time for me to trim my collection as well, but so far I’m having limited success…

    • Ah, yes! 7 boxes (filled) left my home this week, with blessings…and I have to admit, it’s nice to open a bookshelf and have the ability to see my remaining beloveds so clearly and cleanly, but it was the right time for me. A flurry of spring housecleaning took over with the sunshine and temperatures nearing 55. When the snow came, everything settled.

  3. Our experiences with books have been quite different… but still, as I read this post, I feel that you are truly a sister in spirit, and each word comes home and touches my heart. As I read, I’ve decided that I will have to write a post about books very soon. For I too have had to deal with a similar problem.

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