Cherished Objects

One of my more constant activities in my life is weeding through the stacks of books I own, and getting rid of non-essentials. You may be surprised at how difficult this is. I have to get into a very cold-hearted mood. Turn a deaf ear to all of the instincts rising up in me, shrieking: “You might read this book someday! So-and-so LOVED this book!” Sometimes it feels like the book itself is screaming at me. “Nooooo! Don’t throw me away! I’m really good!!”

But there are the tried-and-true favorites, books I will never discard. I’m talking about them as OBJECTS now … not just books I love. I mean, if you lose your copy of Alice in Wonderland, just go buy a new one, right? Well – if any of you have had the same books around you for many many years – you know that some books have irreplaceable value. Buying a brand spanking new copy wouldn’t be right at all.

I’m one of those people who loves to underline passages that catch my fancy, (not just philosophical passages, but descriptive passages, humorous passages – I take notes for myself, if necessary – I underline sentences I love and want to remember – or at least be able to locate quickly should the occasion arise) – so my copy of Catcher in the Rye is literally falling apart at the seams, held together with tape, with little underlines and asterisks in the margins throughout. It’s like a code to decipher. I can’t tell WHY I underlined certain things … so it’s fun to try to imagine myself back in time, to all of the different seasons in my life that I have read this book. Hmmm – why did I outline THAT passage? How funny …. A lot of times the outlines or underlines are just my way of communicating to Salinger: “I. LOve. This. Part.” or “This part is just perfect.” There is no other reason for most of those markings. So I can’t get rid of that dog-eared copy! It means the world to me!

Other cherished books:

— my hard-bound ancient copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Red leather cover, with a gold stamp of the white rabbit checking his watch on the front. The pages are smooth, almost shiny, and thick – obviously a quality book, made a long time ago. Buying a new copy of it would feel sacrilegious. This particular edition was released in 1911. They just don’t make books like that anymore. I’m talking about it as an object.

— my dog-eared taped-together copy of Mating: A Novelby Norman Rush – so written on and worked over that I could never lend it to someone. I have read that book 3 times through – and each time was a totally different experience. For a while, I felt that that book explained my own life to me. Not so much now – but then. The notes I have scribbled in the margins or in the blank pages in the back are like stepping-stones through time.

— my falling-apart copy of Catch-22. Only read that awesome book once, and I think it’s time I took it up again. One of the best books ever written, in my opinion. What an achievement. My copy is just a crappy paper-back … with the cover fallen off … but for some reason, having THIS edition – which obviously is from 30 years ago – as opposed to a shiny new copy – just seems good and right.

— my taped-together copy of Hopeful Monstersby Nicholas Mosley, another all-time fave. I just don’t want to go and get a spanking new copy … That book, with coffee stains on some of the pages, underlines, notes to myself … is precious. Also – the front cover actually caught fire by lying too close to one of my candles … so the top corner is actually singed black. No WAY could I ever get rid of this book. It’s a marvelous book, one of my all-time favorites – I poured my LIFE into that book … so I think it’s just so appropriate that the object itself is so BATTERED and BRUISED. I love that copy of that book.

— my 5 Nancy Lemann books: Ritz of the Bayou, Lives of the Saints, Sportsman’s Paradise, The Fiery Pantheon: A Novel, and Malaise. She is a wonderful writer, a madcap quirtkyk Southern writer, so funny, so terrific – and her books are very hard to find, even though she’s contemporary. I got half of those for half-price at The Strand, and I fear that if I lose them I will never track them down again. I guard those books with my life. They have given me such joy.

— all my Lucy Maud Montgomery novels. I probably have 40 of them. From the entirety of the Anne of Green Gables series all the way down to her recently-unearthed TERRIBLE short stories. Cannot get rid of one of those little books. It would hurt too much. Also – some of them are now kind of hard to find. Like Rilla of Ingleside – which she always thought was her best book. Hard to find now. The Blue Castle – which is MY favorite of her books – hard to find. Jane of Lantern Hill – you can’t just walk into a Barnes and Noble and find that book now. You could about 10 years ago, when Montgomery was having her heyday – but not so much now. I have every single paperback … all lined up in a row … Irreplaceable, again.

— all my Madeleine L’Engle books. I have every single one the woman ever wrote. From her phenomenal fiction: A Wrinkle in Time, plus the many many many others – to her non-fiction memoir-style books (total favorites of mine), down to her theological writing … her Christian books are also kind of hard to find in mainstream stores. I ordered them online. Her Genesis trilogy is phenomenal … sniff, sniff … Those books, again, have gotten me through some rocky points. I have her poetry. I have her illustrated children’s books. Etc. You get the point. If Madeleine L’Engle wrote it, I want it.

— my massive Collected Works of Jane Austen – all her novels in one volume. A huge tome. It has a paper cover – which is ripping – and on it is an old-fashioned line drawing of a mansion with pillars. All her books in this one volume, so you can imagine – it’s a big fat book. I’ve considered getting rid of it, and then buying new volumes of all of her individual books … but I just can’t. It’s too beautiful an object.

— my copy of Moby Dick, another one of my all-time favorite reading experiences. The book was almost TOO dense, TOO rich, TOO good. I could barely deal with it. Every sentence coming at me was so brilliant, so unbelievable … I felt like I needed a break, a break to just deal with the brilliance. It’s like how my cat Sammy used to eat sometimes: he would get so overwhelmed at all the goodies put before him, so discombobbled, that he would sink into a state of paralysis – staring at his bowl of food with intense anxiety. Reading Moby Dick was like that for me. The copy I have is no big deal – I think it’s Vintage? I mean, they make good-looking books – and this is a good-looking book – but it’s really about my first time reading that book – and all the notes I took in the margin. All the exclamation points – the feverish underlining … Every time I flip through the pages I am transported back to when I first read it (well – I read it in high school but that doesn’t count – I mean, first CHOSE to read it). I’m telling you. Most exciting reading experience ever. I love my copy of that book because of the memories it holds in its pages.

— my exquisite copy of Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge – given to me by an old family friend, a book collector and dealer – who knew that such a thing would mean the world to me. It is a precious object. You can tell when you pick it up. The dark green cover … cloth … the slightly embossed lettering of the title – subtle, elegant, not flashy … and the beautiful spareness of the language on the pages. It is one of the nicest objects that I actually own.

— my The Collected Poems. Had the volume (edited by Ted Hughes – very controversially) since I was in high school, when the Plath mania began. The Plath mania has calmed down, thank the good Lord, but I still love her poems, and love to read through them from time to time. I know a couple by heart. That book, again filled with my high-school-age jottings, is a piece of my own personal history. I have pages of looseleaf stuck in the book – with my own ramblings on it. I have also annotated some of the poems – as to how they correspond with real-life events in her journals, or in her letters to her mother. I don’t care so much about real-life events now, and can love Plath’s poems just as they are – poems – but it is amazing to me to flip through, and see how much STUFF I have crowded on the page. Getting a spanking new copy just wouldn’t seem right.

These books are not just books to me. They have become part of my own biography.

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16 Responses to Cherished Objects

  1. mitchell says:

    sheil…i love to read so much(as u know..cut to me in the bathroom of “the box” reading Thomas Mann)…but i never save books..i give them away as soon as im done… u think i have an attachment disorder? I love how u love ur books…i also dont like u think they are related issues?

  2. red says:

    You and your Thomas Mann – I can still see that book in my mind – the cover was yellow and blue!

    I think it’s great – you can really travel light. I am encumbered by my books sometimes. Especially when I move. The poor mover guys look at my 40 boxes of books and CURSE my bookworm ways!!

  3. mitchell says:

    but as a result u have a fascinating one with half a brain would ever be bored at ur house! I have the dvd of Myra Breckinridge!! BTW ..have u read that book…its kinda great…Gore Vidal is a freak.

  4. Beth says:

    have all the montgomery paperbacks lined up too…they’re at my parents house along with all the other truly valuable things i don’t trust myself to keep track of. :-)

  5. Lisa says:

    I must have been really small, because I don’t remember the giving of it, but somewhere somehow in my childhood I became the owner of a beautiful hardcover copy of The Velveteen Rabbit.

    Ohmigod, how I loved that book. The pictures in it fascinated me. I read it CONSTANTLY. It is covered with my childish scribblings and the binding has given so much it’s almost a loose-leaf. The cover is peeling and faded. But it has never left me.

    My MIL asked me once why I kept such an ugly book, as it has held a place of honor, on a shelf, in both of my boys’ nurseries. I said, “How could I not?”

  6. red says:

    Lisa –

    Oh man … that book … I so know what you mean. You just cherish it!!

    Killer story. I still remember the illustrations from the copy in the library at school that I read when I was little.

  7. red says:

    Beth – there’s something so satisfying about having ALL of them, isn’t there? Like – I literally can’t stand the “Pat” series by LM Montgomery – those two books bore me out of my mind. But i MUST have them. (Reading her journals has been SO interesting to put these books into context – she was in the middle of a nervous breakdown when she wrote those two books – a prolonged 5 year nervous breakdown – she could barely finish them) It’s weird – I really don’t like those 2 books, but now I have a kind of strange respect for them, because I know now that it was an act of WILL just to write them.

  8. jayne says:

    that’s good to know about the “Pat” books…i can look at them with more compassion, i think.

    i know what you mean about having to be cold-hearted to weed through books and get rid of some…it really isn’t easy, is it?

    and speaking of old and falling apart…i’ve got my very first copy of a trixie belden book – it’s one of the very old versions, with illustrations…the back cover is gone, the front one is hanging by threads, and the pages are dry and yellow and brittle. but it stays. i remember when i first looked through it…for some reason i thought trixie was a boy from the illustrations…there’s a picture of trixie, honey and jim sitting on a ratty old mattress having a picnic…and even though it’s just line drawings – in green ink – the food looks real to me. i loved that book. loved the series, but i love that book for itself. i think i first read it in the back seat of my parents’ station wagon on the way to new jersey to visit my grandparents….

    no…we don’t get rid of such things.

  9. Mark says:

    My cheap paperback copy of The Two Towers had its cover chewed off by my dog when he was a puppy. He’s been dead for almost ten years now. Whenever I look at it, I can’t help but think “That little shit.”

    In the past few years, book stores have been filled with a bazillion different editions of Lord of the Rings. I considered buying one of those fancy new ones but whatever I got could never replace that dead-puppy-DNA-infused copy I already have.

  10. red says:

    Jayne – Oh my God, those green ink illustrations!! I can so see them in my mind!!

    I have a vivid memory of getting rid of all of my Trixie Beldens and I’m kind of pissed about it.

  11. jayne says:


    You got rid of them?????

    Well, you can always borrow mine.

    I almost got rid of them too, at one point…but i couldn’t do it…but i’ve gotten rid of other books that I kick myself about now. I’m sort of on a quest to find them and get them back.

  12. red says:

    Jayne – Yeah, I went through a huge purge about 15 years ago and got rid of a lot of stuff – which now I want back.

  13. jayne says:

    It seemed so necessary and…I don’t know – like I was cutting loose some excess baggage somehow – mentally – at the time…like ripping up 22 volumes of diaries one day…but now…again…kicking myself sometimes about it.

    But…oh well. At the time I needed to do it.

    Still, it’s tempting to go prowl around the second-hand bookstore I brought them to all those years ago, and look to see if any are still there. hahaha. you never know…

  14. JFH says:

    You mentioning Trixie, reminded me of this

    Open Letter from Trixie

    Nancy Responds

  15. JFH says:

    Dang links didn’t work:

    You mentioning Trixie, reminded me of this

    Open Letter from Trixie

    Nancy Responds

  16. Sherry says:

    About two years ago I went to northern Michigan to recover from a difficult surgery at a friend’s stepmother’s house. We were hit with a blizzard and stuck in the house. The propane went out and we were without heat. The woman didn’t have much wood for her pot-bellied stove and we started burning newspapers. My 3 year old was with me and she was constantly freezing. It finally came down to the point where she asked me if we could burn some of my books.

    It pains me now to even think about it! I had brought about 2 10-gallon totes full of books. Some were my beloved copies, others were ones I had not yet read but were keeping around because I SURELY would read it some day! Would I have picked it up if it wasn’t fabulous??

    I finally ended up releasing enough books to make two big fires before the propane truck showed up. I lost mostly books that I had not yet read, as those books, as objects, were not yet important to me.

    So I know just what you are saying!


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