Autobiography of a Bibliophile

Posted on March 5, 2015

Autobiography of a Bibliophile

 

It’s my grandmother’s fault.

Every time I visited her during my childhood, she’d give me books. Not just two or three books, but a boxful of books. She was a fourth-grade schoolteacher, and when she ordered from the book club for her class, she stocked up for me as well.

Actually, my love of reading goes back even further than that, to the hours upon hours my patient parents spent reading aloud to me. Johnny Gruelle’s Raggedy Ann books stand out in my memory—and they’re still on my bookshelf.

But my passion for collecting books is my grandmother’s fault.

It started innocently enough with the paperback editions of children’s classics that she provided: Charlotte’s Web, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, my well-worn copy of Little Women.

Pretty soon, random paperbacks weren’t enough.

My obliging parents supplied me with a set of hardcover Little House books in dust jackets (the price on my beloved copy of Little House on the Prairie is only $4.95) and the sixteen-volume set of The World Treasury of Children’s Classics in matching royal-blue bindings.

In my middle- and high-school years I rambled across Prince Edward Island with Anne Shirley, journeyed to Narnia with the Pevensies, explored Middle-Earth with Bilbo and Frodo, and wandered the moors with Jane Eyre. I shared the secret room with the Jews in Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and learned to trust God’s sovereignty with Joni Eareckson.

In college I fell in love—with the fiction of Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jane Austen, and fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty. I also began to build my own library of books on theology and Christian living: Francis and Edith Schaeffer, Jerry Bridges, C. S. Lewis, A. W. Pink, J. I. Packer, Sinclair Ferguson, R. C. Sproul, Elisabeth Elliot.

In graduate school I came under the tutelage of Matthew J. Bruccoli—professor, author, publisher, and book-collector extraordinaire—who initiated me into the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald and instructed me in the fine arts of editing, bibliography, and serious book collecting: first editions, limited editions, states and issues, dust jacket variants, books with blurbs or forewords or introductions by my favorite authors, magazines with their stories or articles. The Eudora Welty collection I built in those years won a $300 prize from the university’s library society.

I was such a faithful patron of the University of South Carolina bookstore’s special-order desk (the titles I wanted were seldom in stock) that the clerks gave me a copy of Goodnight Moon— complete with stuffed bunny in blue-striped pj’s—when I gave birth to my first child just before finishing my master’s degree.

The transition from the rarefied halls of academia to the realities of motherhood at home was comparatively easy. Educating my sons has led me into new realms of reading and book collecting. My shelves of home education resources feature the works of Charlotte Mason, Karen Andreola, Catherine Levison, Ruth Beechick, Raymond and Dorothy Moore, Clay and Sally Clarkson, Susan and Michael Card, Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn, and Susan Schaeffer Macaulay.

I’ve had the delight of encountering authors I’d somehow missed like Eric Carle and the d’Aulaires, revisiting childhood favorites (I wept with my children at the death of Charlotte the spider and rejoiced anew at the resurrection of Aslan), and discovering a whole new side of the Little House books. In my girlhood I had focused on the dolls, the nine-patch quilts, and the romance between Laura and Almanzo; reading the books with my boys reminded me that they’re also full of Indians, wild animals, and adventure.

Then there are all those wonderful children’s series to collect: Landmarks, Childhood of Famous Americans, All About books, American Heritage Junior Library, Horizon Caravel, World Explorers.

Of course, if you’re serious about building a home library for your family, you need plenty of books about selecting books: Honey for a Child’s Heart, Books Children Love, How to Grow a Young Reader, A Landscape with Dragons, Who Should We Then Read?, All Through the Ages.

Ultimately, there is a generous genre of books about reading, publishing, and bibliophilia. I found kindred spirits in Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road and Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern’s Old Books, Rare Friends, which occupy the same shelf (well, actually two shelves) in my office as The Open Door: When Writers First Learned to Read; The Delights of Reading; A Passion for Books; The Book on the Bookshelf; Between Covers: The Rise and Transformation of American Book Publishing; At Home with Books: How Booklovers Live with and Care for Their Libraries; and A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books.

Naturally, I require a place to shelve all these treasures: 17 bookcases in my home office, 8 in the living room, 5 in the dining room, 2 in the kitchen, 3 in the schoolroom, 3 in the hall, 9 in the bedrooms. Not to mention all those boxes of recent library-sale acquisitions that I haven’t even shelved yet….

And it appears the obsession is hereditary—or at least contagious. My four boys all show symptoms of bibliophilia, ranging from early read-aloud addiction to full-blown collecting mania.

Three-year-old Thomas is seldom still for more than a few seconds, but just read aloud to him and he’ll snuggle in your lap for hours. Pooh is his current favorite.

Seven-year-old Perry is the most ardent advocate of our family read-aloud times: “Please, Mom, just one more chapter of Carry On, Mr. Bowditch?”

Nine-year-old Andrew (whose preferred location for burying his nose in a book is on top of the monkey bars) recently moved some of his favorite science books to a special shelf in his own room “because I love them so much.” When I handed him The Boy Scientist and The Romance of Chemistry to add to his collection, his eyes got big as saucers and his jaw dropped in delighted amazement.

Forrest, almost twelve, saves his allowance for hardcover Redwall books, treasures two shelves of books by and about J. R. R. Tolkien (and regales visitors with obscure details of the history of Middle-Earth), and is building an impressive library of books about explorers—the topic which ignited his enthusiasm for the study of history. On his eleventh birthday he welcomed an addition to that collection with a comment that would warm any bibliophilic mother’s heart: “Oh, Mom, I needed another book about Sir Francis Drake—I only had one!”

If my children’s addiction is hereditary, it’s all my grandmother’s fault. But somehow, I don’t think she minds.

 

This article first appeared in Confessions of a Bookjunkie (Bookjunkie Press, 2004) and was reprinted in the May/June 2004 issue of Homeschooling Today.

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2 Responses to “Autobiography of a Bibliophile”

  1. […] You can read the rest of the story on my blog for book lovers, Eclectic Bibliophile. […]

  2. […] I thought you might enjoy the story of how I became a bibliophile. It’s my grandmother’s […]

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