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August 19, 2013 / CB

Changing the Margins

A used copy of King Lear that had at least 2 owners before me.

A used copy of King Lear that had at least 2 owners before me.

Not long ago, a pastor of mine made the claim that one of the defining features of the Millennial generation is that they live in constant change.  Now, up until that day, I was totally unaware I was considered a Millennial based on birth year.  To be fair, I’m just baaaarely one, and really consider myself more of Generation Xer.  That said, I understood what he was talking about.  In the last few years alone, I’ve lost loved ones, become a father, changed jobs, started and finished grad school, moved, and experienced all sorts of seismic shifts in my relationships.  I’ve even started monkeying with my handwriting and running stride.  And that leaves to one side the environmental and cultural changes in the world.  One change, though, which may be more telling than all the rest, has been the way I relate to books.

For as long as I can remember, I have been surrounded by books.  More to the point, I have surrounded myself with them.  I can’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t reading or thinking about the next title I wanted to start.  The stories took me places I never knew existed, many of which you can’t get to in this world.  They lifted me out of my life, in good times and bad, and gave me both an escape and a framework for dealing with things once I returned.  I saw love and honor and sacrifice in the pages of Tolkien, and thrilled to the adventures penned by Weis & Hickman.  In many ways, my early reading laid the groundwork for a faith that I would only come to understand later in life.  The stories were dear to me and, as a result, the books themselves became sacred objects.

I wanted to own them, not only the ones I loved most, but others I found along the way.  I day-dreamed of having a huge sprawling library, with shelves so high you would need marvelous rolling ladders to reach the topmost tomes.  Playing at being a scholar, I wanted to collect multiple copies of the same book, different editions that showed a difference in intent or interpretation.  As I got older, and with the limited budget of a school teacher, I did just that.  I filled shelves and spaces to overflowing, sometimes adding books I’d not yet read and would never get around to opening.  Until one day, things changed.  This passion of mine ran headfirst into a cluster of other attitudes and circumstances which demanded change.

It started when I ran out of space.  The shelves were full; if I bought more books, there was nowhere to put them!  So, I declared a moratorium on book buying, and for nearly a year, I added nothing new.  As that time passed, I started to be struck by the stuffiness of the books I owned.  I thought about George Carlin’s famous bit and how, really, most of my books were just taking up space.  I wasn’t rereading them or searching them for insights as questions arose.  They were just there.  This fact bumped up against my innate love of efficiency.  I love things that have multiple uses or that do what they’re supposed to do really well.  And it’s hard to make that argument about a book I read once and would never read again.

This largely mental shift was only amplified by two life changes: I was becoming a father and started studying to be a librarian.  Babies require a lot of stuff, and at no point do they need extra copies of Malcolm Gladwell or A.C. Crispin.  I needed to make room and books were one place to start.  Simultaneously, my schooling created a growing consciousness that books are like so many other physical commodities.  Most would take their turn in the world and pass on, just like the rest of us.  Ultimately, it was not the physical object, the paper and ink, which dug inescapably down into my soul.  It was the stories, the characters, and they could exist in all manner of ways.  Indeed, the best of them never really left my mind and heart once they found their way in, and that fact had little to do with which edition I owned.  Library school made me realize that the vitality I gathered from reading didn’t exist unless the book was in use.  On the shelf, it is largely potential.  It is only in the opening, that a book’s contents can change the world.

In that realization, I became more free about getting rid of much of my library.  It was easier to donate them, sell them, or simply pass them on because I felt like I was giving them a second life.  More than that, I was giving something I loved to someone else, giving that person the chance to love it too.  If a book will exist in space and time, better that it be useful than simply collecting dust.  As my reverence for the physical object passed, so too did my reluctance to write in my books.

I had never been one for making marginalia.  Even in college, I rarely took a highlighter or pencil to my books, preferring to take notes elsewhere with page references.  Strangely, this same attitude never applied to my Bible.  For some reason it just made sense to underline in this most sacred of texts.  Doing so highlighted God’s word as I felt it speaking to me, and finding those spots later reminded me of those times, those thoughts and feelings.  As I’ve begun to mark up my other books, it’s become like a rising tide.  The more I do it, the more emboldened I feel to do it again.  I’m creating a dialogue with my future self, or whoever else reads the book beyond me.

By and large, the books I have kept on my shelf are like mileposts in my life.  They remind me of times and places which shaped me.  By adding notes to them, those memories become fleshed out with thoughts and emotions which are otherwise lost.  It’s a lot like journaling or blogging, I suppose.  It’s a way of marking out my life, my existence, with words.  In a world full of change, that can be a comforting exercise.

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