It wouldn’t surprise me if I was born with a book in my hand.
Reading has been one of my favorite past times for as long as I can remember. If my parents’ stories are true, then I’ve been a book nut since I was a baby. My dad still talks about one of my favorite books from my toddler days – something about a dump truck.
Growing up, I used to get up early on the weekends. I kept my bedroom door closed, and I did one of two things: I either wrote letters to my pen pals, or I read. I would start a book before everyone else woke up, then I continued to read over breakfast and I finished the book before the day was over. I devoured hundreds of books like this as a kid and teenager.
On my particularly enthusiastic weekend mornings, instead of reading, I reorganized my bookshelves. I organized by size and color, reading level and publisher, author and title. At various times, I had fiction and non-fiction shelves. I put the books in order by reading priority, and then I’d change my mind and reorganize all over again.
I had to pare down my book collection when I moved for college, but it grew exponentially over the last several years. When Borders closed, we bought discounted books in bulk. When our friends moved, we took on their book collections. And when we happened upon good additions to the collection at bookstores and garage sales, we hesitated only slightly before welcoming them onto our shelves.
Even in the past few years, I organized and reorganized our shelves by author, type and, most recently, color, which I particularly liked. I loved the chore of stacking the books on the floor, dusting the shelves and putting them back in a new order.
When we moved to Ukraine, we had to make tough choices. We donated all of the books appropriate for teenagers or school-aged kids to a couple teachers in the school district. We had to decide what we were actually going to read (and what had sentimental value), then gave away many to friends and sold several others. And, yes, we packed several books in boxes that we’ll pick through over the years when we revisit the United States.
We just couldn’t let them all go.
We each chose 15 books for our overseas move, but their weight was a problem. Ultimately, we each ended up packing four books. As you likely know from my monthly Open Book blog posts, I made a big leap in my life by replacing actual books with e-books when we moved. Yes, I read e-books before we moved, but they played a minimal role in my life. Paper books have always held a very special place in my heart, and they continue to provide me with comfort and a sense of peace, so it’s been hard to let go.
This is why I now have a newfound love for bookstores.
Correction: I have a newfound love for English-language bookstores. Ukrainians are voracious readers; it’s one of the things I love most about the local culture. And there are many bookstores here. But I haven’t been able to work up that same sense of wonder and discovery looking at book spines written in Russian or Ukrainian. Paging through books and stopping to read passages isn’t quite the same when I can’t actually read the passages. I have found one English-language bookstore in Kyiv that I visit occasionally. It is small and heavily concentrated in classics, but it provides some comfort.
What has taken on new meaning, though, is seeking out bookstores during our holidays when we travel.
It all started in Greece, when a friend tipped us off about a bookstore called Atlantis Books, which was hidden down a little set of stairs. We spent hours in the shop, flipping through books, picking just a couple to buy and petting the cat that was asleep on a pile of books in the back room. Our visit to Atlantis was the highlight of that day, and one of our favorite memories from our trip to Greece.
Over the Christmas holidays, we also found a couple English-language bookstores in Spain. Our favorite was a used bookstore called Desperate Literature in Madrid. It was one of those shops where little notes have been stuck between the pages of books from shop employees, which point out favorite passages and elicit commentary about the text. A local father and his child were in the store when we were there. The shop employee struck up a conversation with him about books. She even read a few passages out loud to the child. We could tell they were frequent visitors, and it left me feeling warm and happy.
People who share their love of books make other people happy simply through their passion.
We spent a few hours in the store and bought several books, which we then had to carry throughout Spain. It was worth it.
During our February break in England, we stopped in several bookstores (both used and new), and when I was in Germany in March, I found the most wonderful used English-language bookstore, where I spent nearly a full day one weekend.
The truth is we shouldn’t collect bookshelves worth of reading material. I am getting used to reading more consistently on an e-reader (though it will never be the same as an actual book), but we’ve also caved and purchased a few books over the year. We won’t be living in Ukraine forever, and when we move, we’ll need to make hard decisions about our belongings once again.
But depriving ourselves of paper books – and the ability to touch and organize them – has also given me a deeper appreciation for them. I treasure the time we have in bookstores with materials in our native language. I particularly enjoy the time I spend reading with an actual book in my hands.
My love of reading will never waver. But as my path through life has wandered this way and that, the way I think about books and reading, and what they really, truly mean to me, has.