In a Seinfeld episode, Jerry asks, “What is this obsession people have with books. They put them in their houses like they’re trophies. What do you need it for after you read it?”
And George responds, “They’re MY books.”
I can remember in vivid detail the cover of the first science fiction novel I bought (with Dad’s cash) that wasn’t already in the house: John Dechancie’s Paradox Alley. The giant star rig, with its huge cabin, has always stuck in my memory. I loaned the book to a friend when I was fifteen and never saw it again. Last time I asked, he says it’s somewhere in his attic. Same goes for Peter Straub’s Shadowland.
In college I let my friend borrow my copy of The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, the book that started my obsession with H.P. Lovecraft. It was returned to me with a damaged spine, carefully scotch-taped to hide any damage. The book had carried me through the slow days of one teenaged summer, and I knew its every fold, its yellowed edges. No strip of transparent cellophane could fool me.
In one act of utter naivety, I gave my girlfriend’s brother my copy of Niven’s Ringworld in an attempt to win his favor (you can still hear the “Ding! Moron!” bell chiming). I had read that book on lonely school nights, when the doldrums of winter offered nothing but homework and early sunsets. Of course, I never saw that book again. The girlfriend, like the book, vanished from my life.
But I haven’t given all of my books away. I still have my copy of Anne Frank’s Diary that I purchased at her home in Amsterdam and read as I backpacked throughout Europe. I still have my dog-eared copy of The Fellowship of the Ring that my father gave to me. I have Clarke’s Childhood’s End and The City and the Stars, the same copies I devoured in my early teens. I have the Herbert’s Dune which had so engrossed me that I read it in one day, pausing only to eat lunch. And I have John Muir’s A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, read in a college philosophy course, which has the most beautiful passage about life I have ever read. (I printed the quote on the inside back cover of Sybil’s Garage No. 2)
The books are piling up, both old and new, and very soon I’m going to need another bookshelf to house them all. Seinfeld was wrong. Books aren’t trophies. They’re friends. Old, familiar, and reliable friends.