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Owning Books

Owning Books

I probably own too many books.

I’m not sure if that’s actually possible; any right thinking person would say that there is no such thing as owning too many books and someone who says otherwise is a joyless troll.

Most of the books are in the to-be-read pile, which grows every time I pop by the used bookshop I worked at a decade ago. Last time I was in, I bought a copy of The Canadian Dictionary for Children like the one that used to be in my school library. I’m never going to read it, but I like having it in the house.

When I was about twelve I used to keep the first three books that I bought with my own money in a square black metal tin: Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, a translation of The Odyssey, and a copy of Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. Of the three, I carried Naked Lunch around for so long that the edges became worn round and the spine had to be re-taped more than once. I currently own three copies of it; the one I carried and an identical copy, and a hardback first edition in slightly ratty condition. I used to own a paperback first edition that I gave to my best friend; she found it incredibly disturbing and will never read it again, but she keeps it for the sentimental value which I appreciate.

It’s the sentimental value of books that keeps me buying them, even when I know full well I’m not going to actually read them immediately (if not for years). Back at Hannelore Headley’s Old and Fine books downtown, Hannah used to talk about knowing that she owned books she was never going to get to read before she died, but that she couldn’t bring herself to get rid of them. She had built her entire life around books, like her father had before in Montreal and in Berlin. For readers, each book is more than just the words inside them: how they arrived on your shelf (or the floor next to your bookshelf if you’re like me and have run out of room) is as important as how the words got inside them in the first place. We once had an early volume of the collected Lord Byron come into the shop that someone had torn a huge section out of the middle. We couldn’t sell it, so she let me take it home. For years afterwards, I would take it down and leaf through the pages to look at the woodcuttings. I eventually gave it to my brother for Christmas.

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I sometimes think about where my books are going to end up when I die (which I admit sound a little morbid). When I pick up something that I have enjoyed reading over the years, I wonder about what the next person will think about it; whether they’ll laugh or cry at the same parts, be kept awake by wanting to know what happens next by the same chapters, or if they’ll find a line that stays with them for years past the first time they read it the way some lines have stayed with me. Maybe they’ll hate it and take it to another bookshop to get it out of their house.

I guess in the end, I don’t own any of the books in my house; I’m just holding onto to these books for now, so that someone else can have their conversation with them and place them onto their shelf.

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