Building Our Personal Libraries, and the Books We Leave Behind

The book I’ve owned the longest has zero cachet, zero cool, zero name recognition. It is not an old copy of my beloved The Castle of Llyr, or a well-worn copy of Mercer Meyer’s Herbert the Timid Dragon. It is an early reader called Tuggy, unexpectedly stamped “Bailey Hill High School” on the inside cover, in between scrawls of crayon.

Tuggy is a book meant to teach a very young reader words. I would not remember that it was part of my learning-to-read process, except that I still have it, tattered and ink-stained, on a shelf with other ancient, ragged children’s books, including Leo the Lop and Tomie dePaola’s The Cloud Book, thanks to which I once knew the names of a lot more clouds than I do now.

There’s no real reason for me to have these books. They don’t say much about me, other than that—like so many kids—I like stories about animals and the world around me. They’re bedraggled copies, not the kind of thing a person collects. I don’t have kids to pass them on to. You could say they’re sentimental, unnecessary, even clutter. But they mean something to me. They’re part of my story. And isn’t that, when you boil it down, why we keep anything—most of all books?

I’ve been thinking about personal libraries because someone in a high-profile paper recently wrote a piece against them. To a bookish person, this seems so baffling a position as to be an outright troll, and at first I was resentful that I took the bait. But then I sat and looked at the wall of books in my house—there are several of these, to be honest, but one is the main wall, all the books my partner or I have actually read—and thought about what’s on that shelf, what isn’t, and how anything got there at all.

My first library was a single shelf of books on a board held up by cinderblocks—books I had been given as a child; books I had purloined from my parents’ shelves and made my own; books I will never know the provenance of. I was so enamored of libraries that I put little pieces of masking tape on the spine of each, each labeled with a letter and number, just like in the real library. This was poorly thought out, as any new addition to the library would not fit in the numbering system, but I was in elementary school. Foresight was not my strong point.

Photo: Molly Templeton

When I was young, I kept every book, even the watered-down wannabe Tolkien fantasies I didn’t like that much. Since then, I’ve moved numerous times; spent four years in dorm rooms with nowhere to store more books than strictly necessary; lived briefly overseas and made difficult choices about which books would come home with me; stored books on the floor, in milk crates, in apple crates, in bookshelves passed along from neighbors or handed down from relatives; in Ikea shelves of every shape and size; and, in one case, in a petite wooden bookcase that I do not remember getting. It’s the perfect size for my craft books, fairy tale books, references and folklore. It’s the one place I shelve read and unread books side by side, a collection of inspiration, aspiration, and ideas that I reorganize every so often.

I don’t keep everything anymore. The first time I got rid of books, I was a college kid with my first bookstore job, and I was disappointed in a much-hyped Nicholson Baker book that did absolutely nothing, so far as I could tell. I didn’t want it. This was a wild new feeling, wanting to be rid of a book—so wild, at the time, that I remember it all these years later.

I don’t remember what I did with it, but I no longer have the book.

What goes makes up your story as much as what stays. Sometimes, when I look at my shelves, all I see are the books I didn’t keep: the first edition of The Solitaire Mystery that I never got around to reading, and so let go; the second and third books in series that I liked well enough but was never going to reread; books I worked on, in various publishing jobs, but just never had a copy of. They’re ghost books, hovering around the edges of the shelves, whispering into the pages of the books I did keep.

I started keeping reading lists as a way to keep track of all the books I read but didn’t keep, but they don’t offer the same sensation as actually looking at the books: being able to pull them off the wall, page through them, remember what it was that drew me to them or made them stick in my memory. Some old paperbacks have the month and year I finished them penciled in the back. A very few have gift inscriptions; some are signed, mostly from events I once hosted. There is one book that’s moved with me for twenty years that I absolutely hate. I loathe this book. It is about indie rock bands in the ’90s, and not a single word of it rings true. But I keep it because I read it and hated it, and my musician friends read it and hated it, and the memory of all hating it together is a weird joy that I think of every time I see its stupid cover on my shelf.

What you get from a book stays in your head, but it isn’t always immediately accessible. I’m terrible at remembering plots, but paging through chapters brings things back. I remember feelings, weird flashes of imagery, characters I loved or wanted to kick. My books are a practical resource—I look at them when I’m writing, when I’m trying to recommend a book to a friend, when I’m thinking about what kind of book I want to read next—but they’re also a story. They’re a story about reading Perfume in college, and loving it so much I won’t give up my cheap paperback even though my partner’s beautiful hardcover sits right next to it. They’re a story about loving someone who adores an author I’ve barely read; dozens of books I don’t know anything about share shelf space with my favorites, with the books that helped make me who I am.

The library is a story about how much I love my books: enough that I’ve been willing to move hundreds of them across the country multiple times. They’re a story about how I categorize them: unread in one space, YA in another, all the mass markets stacked on the topmost shelf, lightweight and easy to get down. (I kind of envy friends whose libraries exist in a state of chaos that is rational only to them.) The books are a story about what I used to read and what I read now, about the few books I’ve been carting around since college (Jose Donoso’s The Garden Next Door, which every year I intend to reread) and the ones I read the minute I got them (Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built) and the ones I absolutely had to have my own copy of after getting them from the library (Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber).

Why do we keep anything? Why do we choose anything? Everything we do says something about who we are, what we value, even if all we can say in a given moment is that we’re tired and worn out and just need soft pants and a book we know every word of already, a book we could follow along with while half asleep. You don’t have to keep books to be a reader. And you certainly don’t need a reason to keep them. But if you grew up on stories, if your memories are infused with what you read where and when and who you talked about it with, books aren’t that different from photographs. They remind you how, and when, and why, and what you did with that knowledge, and how it fits into your life even now.

You could substitute records, or movies, for books; more likely, you have some of each. If you are a collector at heart, you collect things that matter. And for some of us, that’s stories, most of all.

Originally published September 2021

Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. Sometimes she talks about books on Twitter.


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