One of the more challenging aspects of the shut down here in Oregon is that it closed our local library system. I realize that’s a minimal challenge, hardly disastrous; still, Kate and I love our local library and use it religiously. We are lucky in that Multnomah County has one of the country’s best systems, with a circulation that is second highest in the country for library systems serving fewer than a million patrons. We’re doubly lucky that the branch we use is within a good walk of our home, and so it is not uncommon for us to visit it on any average weekend, picking up new holds, perhaps taking a few minutes to browse, and returning home with our newfound treasures.
Multnomah County’s library inventory is strong, though perhaps not quite as esoteric as I might prefer. We use it for books primarily, but also for the occasional DVD to watch on a laptop. (Our current enjoyment is the old television show Northern Exposure, which we are very slowly working our way through and which is a delight in its oddity, its frequent philosophical and literary references, and its kindness towards its characters.) It has a strong interlibrary loan system, as well, which has proven helpful when my tastes have skewed a little too far off the map.
But the library is now closed, and has been for about a month and a half now. At a time when we are reading even more than normal, that’s unfortunate—already there have been numerous titles I have wanted to place on hold, but to no avail. In response to this loss of resource, we did place a significant order with Powell’s to help tide us over with some new and exciting titles (well, not new—used books published years ago but that we have not yet read, thus making them exciting to us) but it still has been tough not having access to a library of thousands of titles when we most want it.
There is a clear bright side, though, which is the opportunity to actually get around to reading some of the couple hundred books I already have. It’s not as though Kate and I don’t already have books at our disposal, after all—we have quite a few lining the shelves in our apartment, and plenty of them are yet to be read. It’s just that the convenience of the local library and the roving literary eye make for a tendency toward seeking out books not already owned over reading the already-acquired ones awaiting attention.
This is an unfortunate habit of mine, and one that I suspect quite a few of you reading this might also have. I am a collector of books—about the only thing I still collect. I am not so much one as I used to be, and that is partly because my wife is not willing to let me fill our small apartment entirely with the written word. But it is also due to my own desire to control this impulse and to make better use of our library system; to not, in other words, own too much.
That said, our shelves have traditionally been full, we have for most of our time here had small piles of books stashed in various other places in the apartment, and I have had boxes of books stashed in our basement storage space. But, lo and behold, that’s beginning to change. I still have books in storage, if I’m going to be honest, but most of the piles of books have been cleared and the shelves, typically packed, have actually sprouted a few loose spaces in them. As Kate and I work our way through a good number of books during this shut down, we are whittling the library.
It’s been a small joy rediscovering it. It’s easy to get caught up in new discoveries, to lust after new recommendations, and to revel in the finding of a new author and their bibliography. But it’s also a joy to rediscover that which once excited me. It’s fun to browse my own shelves and to remind myself why I picked up that book in the first place, or to revisit an author I have not read in quite awhile. And it’s very satisfying to whittle my way through the books I already own.
Why is that? Well, part of it is the somewhat guilty fact that it means I may get to refill that hole, giving me an excuse to purchase another book—something I still and will always love doing. But the collecting of books I so enthusiastically have engaged in much of my life admittedly hit certain points of absurdity. Over the past few years, I have sorted through and sold and given away hundreds of books, many of which I had long since lost the desire to read and others I no longer felt the need to own. And as I have done that, the actual ability to read all the books I own has started to become feasible to me. That’s a change; when I owned some five hundred books or more and would buy, say, at least thirty new ones a year (probably more) and would be reading perhaps forty a year . . . well, you do the calculation. I could never read all the books I owned. And that actually saddened me, the thought that I owned all these books that I would never actually be able to read. It was something of a betrayal of the desire that led me to purchase them in the first place.
Now? Well, realistically I am probably not going to read every book I currently own, but it feels much more feasible now. And that’s a pleasant feeling. So while I am sad that we have lost our local library for the time being, I am pleased to be rediscovering my own library held right here at home. And with luck, a little down the line when the bookstores are back open, I’ll have the joy of purchasing a couple new books that excite me, bringing them home, and slotting them into an open space on the bookshelf.
In the meantime, I’m getting plenty of reading done and enjoying the quiet simplicity of it. This shut down is good for something, at least.