Monday, November 18, 2013

My Literary Love Affair

"I cannot live without books," wrote President Thomas Jefferson to President John Adams in 1815, the year he sold his 6,500-volume library to the United States Congress, in order to restore the nation's Library after the British destroyed it in the War of 1812.  His book collecting spanned 50 years and the resulting library incorporated virtually every subject of possible interest to a literate person.  When offering his library to Congress, Mr. Jefferson wrote "I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer."  He let the buyer set the price because the rebuilt library would become, in his words, "the depository of unquestionably the choicest collection of books in the US, and I hope it will not be without some general effect on the literature of our country." 

Today, the Library of Congress holds over 22.8 million books plus 7.6 million other printed works.  It is the repository of all copyrighted materials in the United States, providing proof of ownership in legal cases among other services for authors and scholars.  This library is second in size only to the British Library.  It's main purpose is to provide research services to the U. S. Congress.  In addition, the Library of Congress promotes literacy and the pursuit of education and preservation of history through a variety of programs including the American Folklife Center and the Center for the Book.  No trip to Washington, D. C., is complete without a visit to the main reading room, a shrine to human excellence and the great American Experiment.

Most Americans own a small number of books, but there are those of us who, like Thomas Jefferson, find books irresistible.  My parents were great readers and I grew up in a house filled to overflowing with books.  To my great dismay, one of the first "adult" books I read in elementary school was William Golding's Lord of the Flies;  I still have nightmares about it.  Fortunately I discovered The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and I realized that I was not alone in seeing that humans were a greatly troubled species.  Even though I wasn't much of a student, my love of reading provided me with an on-going education that I continue to enjoy.   If I kept every single book I have ever read, I would need a very large warehouse to store them all because becoming a good reader takes a lot of practice.  The books my husband and I keep are ones we would be willing to read a second (or third) time.  It is hard to prevent our bookcases from overflowing because they are filled with books that have earned a permanent place in our lives.  It gives us pleasure to read the spines of the many volumes in our library and remember a passage or a character or feeling a particular book evoked.  When I am too old to get around, I hope I will still be able to read (or listen to) books.  My worst fear is finally having time to read to the end of my list, but not being able to because of physical limitations.  There was a "Twilight Zone" episode about this which upsets me to this day.

The only thing you can bet on in life is that things change, and things have recently changed for my family.  Our reason for living in Florida recently disappeared and sadly we will be leaving this singular place that, against the odds, we have come to love.  Our next move will likely result in a smaller house because our children are grown.  A smaller house, unfortunately, means we will need to leave a good part of our library behind.  How to choose a "permanent collection"?  That is the question.  It would be easier if there were a books equivalent of iTunes so that we could download eBook copies of books we already own, but there is not yet an app for that. 

It makes me sad to think that the days of printed books are numbered, but change is a constant we must accept if we wish to thrive.  I already have 44 books on my Nook eReader and find the experience of reading digital pages to be acceptable in most cases.  There are several advantages to the eReader:  a dictionary or reference source is a click away, there is always something to read, and I feel no guilt about deleting a bad book.  My Nook is best for what I call "disposable books," such as book club selections and popular reading that I am glad not to own a hard copy of.  There are several websites which allow free downloads of books which have outlived their copyright protections and are now in the public domain(  This is a great way to read the classics.  Other websites, devoted to emerging writers, feature free or low-cost eBooks (  Do not despair:  the written word is alive and well, new authors are emerging, and publishing an eBbook can be done in half a day.  It is the big publishing houses that are suffering right now.  Things change.  That's life.

Given the coming changes in my life, I have decided that this will be my last blog post on the topic of reading,  and so I will leave you, dear readers, with a list of a few books that I have appreciated (in no particular order) across the past twenty or so years, but haven't had the chance to write about:

  • ·         Generations of Winter by Vasily Aksyonov (1994)
  • ·         Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1983)
  • ·         West With the Night by Beryl Markham (1942)
  • ·         The Ciderhouse Rules by John Irving (1985)
  • ·         The Life and Work of Martha Graham by Agnes de Mille (1992)
  • ·         The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan (1991)
  • ·         A Lesson Before Dying by Earnest J. Gaines (1993)
  • ·         Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene (1991)
  • ·         Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver (1989)
  • ·         Babel Tower by A. S. Byatt (1996)
  • ·         Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (1996)
  • ·         Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andreï Makine, translated by Geoffrey Strachan (1997)
  • ·         Out of Egypt by André Aciman (1994)
  • ·         A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul (1961 and later)
  • ·         Gallileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel (2009)
  • ·         The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (2007)
  • ·         Waiting by Ha Jin (2000)
  • ·         Straight Man by Richard Russo (1998)
  • ·         Personal History by Katharine Graham (1998)
  • ·         American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1998)
  • ·         Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley (2000)
  • ·         Escape from Lucania by David Roberts (2010)
  • ·         Songs of the Kings by Barry Unsworth (2003)
  • ·         The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (2002)
  • ·         The Magician's Wife by Brian Moore (1997)
  • ·         The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster (2002)
  • ·         The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. (1947)
  • ·         The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (2003)
  • ·         The Reivers by William Faulkner (1962)
  • ·         Graceland by Chris Abani (2005)
  • ·         Snow in August by Pete Hamill (1998)
  • ·         The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (2001)
  • ·         The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch (1992)
  • ·         Two Lives by Vikram Seth (2006)

And, in honor of a happy decade in south Florida,

  • ·         A Land Remembered by Patrick D. Smith (1984)
Copyright 2013 by Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved