Weighing the Books
By Chrissine Rios, MA, Purdue University Global Writing Center
My home office-by-day/studio-at-heart is one of my favorite places for many reasons, and about 200 of them are books.
Some have literally saved my life; others have just stuck to my bones. Each shelf holds a genre, and each genre holds a part of my story. On my shelf of children’s classics, for instance, I have The Little Prince. It was my mom’s when she was a girl, and folded inside is the book report I wrote on it in 7th grade; I can still remember crumpling up the rough drafts of lined paper, and there was a dozen. Back then good writing had a lot to do with good hand writing, I thought, and I wanted mine to be good.
Another special shelf holds my reference books including Simon and Schuster’s International Dictionary: English/Spanish, Spanish/English, a 1,597-page hardcover that weighs a ton and a half. I majored in Spanish in college, studied for a semester at the Universidad Veritas in Costa Rica, and for a year at the University of Puerto Rico—I still have my Antología de Textos Literarios from UPR and a soulful collection of postcolonial literature by Caribbean authors. I bought the big dictionary when I was waist deep in Spanish classes. I needed it for survival. And in the eight times I’ve moved since finishing college, I’ve had to decide if I would again pack it up and take it with me, even though the only times I’ve cracked it open have been almost exactly those same eight times I moved, just to weigh my need for it.
I also have a paperback English/Spanish dictionary, a thick book as well but with the same words and not big and heavy. And when I opened that one to weigh its importance, my initial thought was I don’t need this one if I keep the big one, but then I saw my mom’s name printed inside the cover and remembered how she kept up with her Spanish all those years I was studying it. So my decision was made: The mammoth dictionary would go to Goodwill, and my mom’s paperback would stick with me.
In a blogging course I took a few years ago, a woman in my breakout group said she gave all of her books away, all of them. She could no longer look at the stack looming on her nightstand. She said she reads e-books now—no clutter, no guilt. And she loves books. She was finishing her now published novel at the time, which I read, reviewed, and gifted to my mother. I loved it. My shelves may be full and my nightstand too, but I have a living library. Books come and go. I don’t keep all I read or even read all I keep. But there’s no way I could let go of my copy of Running with Scissors that Augusten Burroughs signed for me after his talk at the Florida Suncoast Writers’ Conference in 05. That book was powerful.
Yet I read e-books too, and when Burroughs’s memoir Lust and Wonder came out earlier this year, I decided I would download it from Amazon. His books have been filling up my memoir shelf for years, and that’s my favorite shelf! When it came to weighing their worth to me, they were heavy with great love, but also, just heavy, and for about a day, or at least an hour as I pulled those and about 40 more from my shelves to lighten my load, I considered donating every single one of my books to Goodwill or the local library. I don’t “need” them, after all. I could get most (but not all) as e-books; I could take pictures of the inscriptions. Books are heavy to move and expensive to transport across multiple states as I will be doing very soon.
But here’s the thing: I do need them. I need them in the way a musician needs music and a painter needs paintings and a lover needs love. Books are my reason for writing and loving language; they are my reward, my inspiration, and they have shaped the life I live, and in my work as a writing tutor and a writer, I use them all the time. I’ve reopened a box a day it seems looking for one and then another. It’s terribly inconvenient having them in boxes, but I must pack to move. And where I’m going, I’ll make a new studio-office, and I’ll shelve my books on a new bookcase (since mine was too heavy to keep), and I will be home again.