Carrying a box of books out to my truck the other day, I experienced something of an epiphany. I was intending to donate the books to the library's book sale (the income from this sale provides us with much-needed funds), but as I set the box down on my front seat, I was embarrassed to notice a book lying on top that looked considerably worse for wear. To avoid people donating items like this, items we'd be uncomfortable asking our patrons to pay for, the library posts a simple piece of advice to would-be donors: “If you wouldn't give it to a friend, don't give it to the library.” I should have known this—should never have even considered dropping such a book into my box of donations—I was the guy who wrote that line.
Still, I couldn't quite bring myself to simply throw the book away. It was a paperback copy of Evelyn Waugh's “A Handful of Dust,” originally purchased (seventeenth Dell printing) in 1973 for $1.25, and though its cover was now bent and cracked, its pages discolored and giving off a strong smell of paper dust ... I would have given it to a friend in a New York minute.
And it was as I was thinking this thought that suddenly I understood why—my folksy bit of advice to would-be donors notwithstanding-the occasional patron still donates a book that looks as if someone dropped it while reading in the tub ... It isn't that these patrons don't care about the library or the people we're trying to attract to our sale, it's that they can't believe there isn't someone out there who will love this book, whatever its condition, as much as they have.
Books are special that way, aren't they? They're one of the few things, besides friends and past lovers, whose outward appearance is less important than what's going on inside. When is it, do you suppose, that this happens to us? When is it that these mysterious objects, full of lines and squiggles we've all come to accept as language, when is it that they first extend their hands to us, pull us out onto the floor and invite us to dance?
I can still remember the first girl I ever fell in love with—I can remember her name and the way she looked, what she said and what she liked to think about-but the first book? I'm not sure. Was it “David Copperfield” or “Portrait of the Artist” that first left me gasping for more? For that's another thing about books, isn't it, the fact that one is never enough? Unlike girls, when we find the perfect book, we don't propose to and marry it, forsaking all others till death do us part ... No, emphatically no, like dissolute roués we want more, more, more!
(Cue “Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.”)
And so, to paraphrase Willie and Waylon ... Parents, whatever you do, don't let your children participate in the library's summer reading program this year ... unless of course you want them to fall in love with books and life and learning. For that, finally, is all that books really have to offer us: the sum total of human experience ... what civilization has seen so far of life, what it's meant to us, and where we hope to go with it.