Memories of Books

“Much depends upon when and where you read a book.”—Charles Lamb, “On Books and Reading” (Last Essays of Elia)

Memories can be associated with books taken singly and en masse. In the case of individual books, there are some qualities over which the author has absolutely no control, but they add to our reading experience. It may be the texture of the paper, the typography, the cover art, and even the age and wear of the book. Then there is the “setting of the book.” For example, I will always associate my first reading of Johnson’s Rasselas, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and Belloc’s The Four Men with the balmy days of early summer. They bring to mind a line from Dickens: “The day was made for laziness, and lying on one’s back in green places….”

This leads me to the next consideration—the place we find our books. Every return to a favorite spot builds on our experience. That has been true of the libraries and bookstores I’ve haunted throughout the years. And the more ancient the venue, the greater the charm. Memories run deep there, like the ruts and scuffs in the old floors traversed by countless readers. Empirically speaking, it should be no different than visiting a shopping mall. And it is more than a question of architecture. It may be the fact that these places are resident to venerable tomes, gathered round like benevolent and dignified spirits, and not just the latest mass market novels and current events commentaries.

Libraries and bookstores are temples of mental repose to the bibliophile. There are still a few venerable libraries left. Unfortunately the bookstore of character and memory, with graying walls and dusty shelves, is a vanishing phenomenon outside of university towns. Most of the brick-and-mortar stores that still survive cater to the high-end customer—hardbacks and first editions, usually of tedious works.

I remember my dismay when I saw a moving van pulled up in front of a favorite bookstore in my hometown. The last time I passed by, three years ago, was the day they were closing for good. It was the kind of place any book lover would have recognized. The wooden sided house was in ill-repair. The owners always looked like they slept in their clothes among the book piles. They sold old Penguin, Pelican, Collier and Norton paperbacks of history, philosophy and classical literature for a dollar or two each. Such bargains belong to another age.

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