I grew up in a house full of books. Both of my parents have been life-long book lovers, and like most parents of young children, they read aloud plenty of bedtime stories. But they also cultivated in me a love of books that today has me pitting my desire for an ordered home against my longing to surround myself with a proper library.
This stems in part I’m sure from the several years of grade school that my mother homeschooled my brother and me. Our curriculum introduced me to books I almost certainly wouldn’t have encountered in traditional schools. But perhaps more important, it gave me time. All of my work was “homework,” and I usually managed to finish it far before the normal school day would end.
After that, my day was my own, to play outside or to do my chores—or to read. And so I did. One of the earliest books I loved was C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Once my mom had read it to me for the first time, I must’ve read it on my own another dozen times in the span of a year.
Many days, when homeschooling was finished, we would venture to the local library, where we’d be allowed to wander around to our hearts content and fill yawning canvas bags with old favorites or new discoveries. We’d contentedly lug all of them home, only to scramble madly in a few weeks’ time searching for the ones that inevitably were overdue and missing.
[E]ven as they whisper that they’ll give me the world, the groaning shelves remind me: There’s only so much time.
If we were going on a family road trip, the library bags would be even heavier, and stuffed with a wide assortment of options; you never knew, after all, whether you’d want to reread a beloved classic or spend a few hours engrossed in something brand new. A few days into the trip, would I be more in the mood for a mystery or historical fiction? Best to have at least three of both.
As a child, then, I read everything I could get my hands on, and if it couldn’t be found at the library, I’d ask my dad if we had it in our family collection. More often than not, he’d be able to dig it up for me, and off I’d go. It gave me a feeling of immense satisfaction to know that whatever book I wanted—whatever story or topic I wanted to know more about—was right at my fingertips.
Mysteries were an early favorite, British author Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers series in particular. I can remember many a night spent cross-legged on the floor next to my nightlight, reading well past my bedtime because I couldn’t bear not to find out what happened next. Christmas time, my favorite season for many reasons, was especially wonderful because it meant that my dad would hang strings of oversized colored light bulbs on my bedroom walls, making it easier than ever to read into the night without being found out—although today I’m sure my parents must have known.
I have my parents to thank, too, for my love of secondhand books. On weekends, we’d often find ourselves at used-book sales, which to me were like magic, libraries with more options than usual and books that would be mine forever, not just for two weeks. Today I look on bookstores with no less wonder, and, now that I have more space to call my own, with the goal of cultivating a home library of my own. My desire to add to my collection is quickly outpacing my ability to furnish enough bookcases to hold it. On a recent trip, I found a sought-after old edition of The Joy of Cooking for just a few dollars, and inside were some recipes handwritten on scraps of paper—the joy of finding a book someone else has loved well, and gaining the treasures that come with it.
Though I do love them, rooms full of books have always given me a funny, mixed feeling. The books seem to promise that they’ll tell me everything, their spines gesturing to topics that have never before crossed my mind but that suddenly seem of immediate importance. I can read them all; I can know everything there is to know. But even as they whisper that they’ll give me the world, the groaning shelves remind me: There’s only so much time.
It gave me a feeling of immense satisfaction to know that whatever book I wanted—whatever story or topic I wanted to know more about—was right at my fingertips.
Even if I found a way to dedicate my life to perusing all the most enticing books in the world, I never could make it through every one. It is a striking reminder that life passes quickly, that we ought to make the most of it. Life is too short, I often say, to make yourself finish reading a book you aren’t enjoying. And, in the end, the joy of books isn’t found in possessing them as pretty things or status markers on a sideboard, or in siphoning from them whatever knowledge or meaning they have to offer.
The real secret to delighting in books is found in childhood, when you discover a book you love so much that you’ll read it twelve times in a year, and once a year from then on for every year of your life—even if it’s much less fun to read next to bedside lamp than it is to steal a few pages by stealth under the glow of a nightlight.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer at National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.