Exhaling Words: An Obsession With Books

I have an obsession with my bookshelves.

Sometimes I will just stand there, staring at my books, and this feeling of fondness rises up in me, not unlike the way I feel when I sneak into my kids’ rooms at night and watch them sleep. Staring down at my children I marvel at how they are kept alive by such a small passageway, and that this invisible air slips in and out and kindles the life in them.

I think the same thing when I look at my books – such small breaths by people I will never meet, and yet they managed to exhale things like “East of Eden” or “A Prayer For Owen Meany.” Such monumental ventilation.

* * * * *

I pull random books and stare at the covers, remember when I first read them, how they impacted me. Like old friends.

I am doomed to remember a boy with wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

Read that one as a freshman at Messiah College, eyes wide open, taking in the world. Like a satellite that ventures outside of the Solar System, I was amazed at the breadth and depth of the universe outside of Lancaster County, where I grew up.

I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises.

Thank you Anne Lamott. The inscription inside the front cover reads, “To Shawn: For his 21st Birthday. From: Jason McCarty.” One of the best gifts I ever received.

And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

My wife is not sure what to do with that last passage, because, while she also loves the imagery, it is a story that makes me eager to die.

* * * * *

My bookshelves also lend me a semblance of control. I like to place at least one of Anne Lamott’s books right beside Dobson’s book “Bringing Up Boys.” I like this. It makes me smile.

I’ve thought about putting “Imaginary Jesus,” “Evolving in Monkeytown,” “Blue Like Jazz,” and “Love Wins” together, because I think Mikalatos, Evans, Miller and Bell would make for one of the best dinner parties ever.

Then there’s the upper shelf – Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Percy, McCarthy and Stegner…my golden age of American Literature.

What are your favorite books? Your favorite quotes? What does the way you arrange your books have to say about you?

21 Replies to “Exhaling Words: An Obsession With Books”

  1. I read A Prayer for Owen Meany in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Took it with me to read during my self-directed practicum I stubbornly hammered through the Biblical Studies department that didn’t quite know what to do with me (but loved me nonetheless). I will always remember laughing through the destruction of Dr. Dolder’s VW while sitting on a couch in an underheated living room in the Falls. I’ve given away half a dozen copies of that book.

    Its funny how some books aren’t just ‘favorites’, they seem to meld seamlessly with our own language, our own memories. There are some books I will always own for that reason.

  2. Shawn, I think we were seperated at birth. You’re singing my song here. My house revolves around books. Rooms have been rearranged based on the need for adequate shelf space. I can pass a full afternoon sitting on the floor in my home library poring over favorites books or looking for that one favorite line from that one Salinger story. I live in words, and I work in books. It’s what led me to be a used book dealer, and what will hopefully make it possible for me to do so full time in the next year.

    We need to get together some time and talk books late into the night over some good beer or coffee. Sound like a plan?

    1. Hard to believe I probably drove close to your house – when I met Maile she lived in Troy, OH. A used book dealer? Tell me more!

      1. You definitely weren’t far. Let me know the next time you guys visit family in Troy let us know.

        I sell used books primarily online and through limited private sales. I’m currently in full scale preparation to open a used book store in Greenville in the next year or two. Ah, books…

  3. I’m staring at the books on the shelves around me, Shawn, and taking comfort in all that they have given and all that they promise. Thank you.

  4. I don’t feel comfortable in a new home or a new office until I see some of my books around me.

  5. A Prayer for Owen Meany is an incredible book. I can do a better job of naming key authors, rather than books, for the most part, though I’d have to say Winter’s Tale from Mark Helprin was a powerful read for me.

    Authors that are key for me: Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, Sayers, Charles Williams, Buechner, Larry Woiwode (Poppa John was amazing). Also Walker Percy, W.P. Kinsella, Thurber.

    Oh the list goes on and on…

      1. Have read Love Among the Ruins, or its erstwhile sequel, The Thanatos Syndrome? The man had such a grasp on the human condition.

  6. My biggest dream (in this context) would be to have a library! I think my collection says that I’m a curious romantic. How else would you describe The City of Ember next to Twilight next to Anne of Green Gables? Wait, forget I asked that question.

  7. I love having the whole set of books. And they all have to be the same version. I can’t have a hardback “Fellowship of the Ring” next to a paperback “The Two Towers.” I couldn’t live with myself.

    I had to order all my missing harry potter books just so I would have the whole set. I keep books that I know I will never read again because the whole set of them just looks so great on my shelf. And I view it as a trophy. I conquered this story!

    I love poking through other people’s bookshelves as well. So many treasures!

  8. As you pass through your 40s, you may experience a change in your relationship with your books. You may discover that your books have become artifacts of friendships that once were, and the way to revive the friendship is to, yes, disperse some — or many — of your books.
    That happened to me, and it rekindled my love for the books I gave away and the ones I kept. I ended up reducing my library by half.

  9. my wife and i love the smell of books. we often waft the pages into our nose. some smells we like more than others.

    i also take extremely good care of my books. i love for the cover of the paperback ones to still lay flat. i hate when it pops up. i hardly open the book when i’m reading it as to preserve this aspect. i hate when people fold one half back to read the other side!!

  10. I don’t know if it was poetic or calloused the way that you compared your children and old friends to your books :-)

    I just sandwiched “God is not Great” by Christopher Hitchens in between “Think No Evil” and “Twist of Faith” in hopes of making the co author of the ladder books laugh a bit.

  11. My wife doesn’t quite understand my obsession with books. So many favorites. They all touch me in different ways; there’s Tplough, Lewis, Williams, Chesterton, King, Boyett… too many to list.

    Never ryet ead Meany, but I did read Garp as a teenager.

  12. I feel about books the way my son felt about his favorite blanket as a child-so comforting, so necessary.

    Nice little alliance of bibliophiles we have here!

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