The first book I remember was a small, square collection of children’s poems with a blue cover. Each poem was illustrated with happy, shiny people, mostly blonde. The particular rhyme I remember is the monologue of a little girl pictured handing from a blue wingback chair, her eyes squeezed shut with laughter. “I’m hiding, I’m hiding,” she squeals, “and no one knows where.” The adults in the picture look perplexed at the disappearance of their daughter.
That book was lost somewhere along the way. And I mourn it.
Our house is filled with hundreds of books, too many for our collection of bookshelves to hold them all. We are victims of “Tsundoku,” the habit of buying books and not reading them. My husband can read a book and then let it go. Read and release. I cannot do the same. Among the books stuffed into the living room bookshelf, piled on the floor in front of it, and lined up on the shelves in the dining room are a few I’ve owned for over 40 years. The books themselves aren’t valuable. Some of them are crumbling paperbacks sitting next to much newer acquisitions.
The books are like little time machines. I hold onto them like an ardent traveler holds onto a plane ticket or a theater buff hoards tickets. Opening one book pushes me into an operating room in a Boston hospital. Another is a door into a party in Prohibition-era New York City. A third is set in a Southern military college. One paperback has a cryptic note from a high school classmate inside the back cover, so on the way to Washington, D.C. there’s a layover at a high school in Grove, Oklahoma.
I resist getting rid of them. What if I want to revisit one of those places and my time machine isn’t there? Books can be lost. If it’s not in my house, who knows if I can find it somewhere else?
When I was in fourth grade my English teacher, Mrs. Clough, recommended a book called Hold Fast to Your Dreams. The story of a young African-American girl with a passion for dance enthralled me because I loved ballet. I was a chunky, graceless kid who hated PE, but the gracefulness of the ballet and the book spoke to me.
I owned that book.
And then I lent it to someone and I’ve never seen it again. Not only did the girl never return the book, I have never seen it in a bookstore, thrift shop, flea market, or garage sale since then.
I remember another book about an aspiring designer I read about the same time. The plot is fuzzy, but I remember the description of her entry into a design contest, an evening dress of turquoise satin with a chocolate brown organza overlay. Another book that disappeared.
And how I miss those orange-backed biographies of great Americans! Betsy Ross, Jane Addams, Amelia Earhart. I remember pulling them from the short shelves of a tiny small-town library and returning them only to choose another.
Yes, of course books can be found. I have been reunited with books I thought were lost for good.
One summer in Kentucky, when I was 9 or 10, I read a collection of strange stories modeled on Robert Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” column. Each page long entry was dedicated to what its title called Amazing But True stories about history, geography, and the natural world. The astonishing platypus! The old man who foiled a bank robbery because he liked to add up numbers on license plates! The funeral for a man’s amputated leg!
I can’t explain my fascination for that book or remember where it was lost, but when I found it in a thrift store a couple of years ago I bought it and was once again captivated by the weirdness.
Another book I lost and then found again was the novel, One Summer in Between by Melissa Mather. The heroine of the novel is a Southern college student who spends a summer as a mother’s helper in Vermont. Her experience as a black woman in the Jim Crow South made her interactions with the rambunctious family she moved in with difficult. It’s an epistolary novel, her letters reporting back to the college professor she is obviously falling in love with chronicling how the distance between her and the family she stays with closes over the summer.
Again, I lost it somewhere along the way and reclaimed it at a garage sale.
Of course, returning to books we once loved is not always easy. What was magical when I was young is sometimes simplistic. The people I loved then are sometimes flawed in ways I couldn’t recognize as a child or young adult. Mathis’ novel is dated; the white author writing about a black woman’s awakening is awkward to read now, even if the protagonist, Harriet Brown, is spirited and engaging. But as we age so do our tastes, and the dissonance of returning to the things we loved when we were young is there whether we revisit a book, a movie, or even a beloved place.
Once you’ve read a book, you own it forever. The bone and meat of them sticks with us, like the words from Dorothy Aldis’s poem about the little girl playing hide-and-seek, which I can recite still. What a luxury, though, to be able to pick up the book itself, inhale the scent of the pages, and open that door again.
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