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Stories whispering in our walls

I am a book collector. My husband is another one.

When we got married, he already had a considerable collection of books; and when we moved from Florida to Washington state fully two thirds of our moving boxes were stuffed with books, probably 1,500 of them. In Washington, my own moving boxes arrived from New Zealand. Thirty book boxes out of some fifty contained books– another 1,500 or so.

We have now been together for a decade. In those ten years, we have not ceased to gather up books. We have a library off the office, an entire room filled with wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on three of the four walls. One wall sports a sliding secret door that, when closed, hides the library. From the office side, the door is, of course, disguised as a bookcase.

A floor-to-ceiling bookcase in the office is stuffed with enough reference material – on things as diverse as a dictionary of poisons and antidotes, histories of medieval women, a manual on screenplay writing and a Chinese-English dictionary – to make it groan under the weight.

Another room has built-in shelves most of which are triple-stacked with paperbacks, and that room has other shelves where larger hardcovers roost. There’s a book case in the bedroom downstairs. There’s a book case in the second bedroom upstairs – a double one, from floor to ceiling. We built in another shelf into a wall in the corridor. There’s a shelf of large coffee-table books (on Antarctica, on China, on bonsai, on castles in Scotland and trees in South Africa…) tucked under what in normal houses would be a breakfast counter off of our open-plan kitchen.

There are books stacked on the piano, next to my armchair in the living room, which I am currently reading. There are books stacked next to my husband’s armchair. There are piles on the coffee table. There are random books scattered on the dining room table, next to my bed, in the car.

You will have done the math already and figured out a simple truth: we have not lived so long, even combining our lifetimes, to have read every book in this house. There are unread books on our shelves.

They are not abandoned. British writer Nick Hornby said, “With each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.” Recently I came across another essay on the subject, Kirsty Logan’s “Confined by Pages: the Joy of Unread Books.” Kirsty says, “An unread book exists only in the primordial soup of your imagination, and there it can evolve into any story you like. An unread book­any unread book­could change your life.”

Because, she says, having an unexplored world right at your fingertips is a totally exhilarating idea. It’s ALL THERE, still waiting for you, still unread. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re there, and every one of the books on your shelves is part of you, of who you are, of who you were, of who you are becoming.

There is a very good reason I gravitate to the bookshelves of every new house I step into. Those books will tell me more about the inhabitants of that house in five minutes of browsing than in twenty four hours of intense conversation.

Anyone coming into our house would no doubt be similarly enlightened about us. Who am I? What am I interested in? What are my husband’s interests? Where do we meet and converge, and where do we each go our own way? Which one of is interested in ancient mysteries and crop circles, and which one in the histories of Byzantium and the Crusades?

Yes, there are books in this house which haven’t been read. We LIKE it that way. We will never be caught in the unthinkable situation of having “nothing to do”. All we ever have to do to keep from feeling bored and at a loose end, even for just an instant, is walk to a bookshelf and run our fingers across the spines of the books that live there, and choosing one we have not yet been introduced to, and settling in to become better acquaintances.

Our house is full of unread books, of dreams yet to be dreamed, of roads yet to be traveled down. It is a place of magic. Walk in through our front door, and you will hear stories whispering in our walls.


About AlmaAlexander

I'm a scientist by education, a duchess by historical accident and an author who shares writing tips and glimpses of a writer's life, the mundane and the magic

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