Friday, March 28, 2014

An Unexpected Book: Discovering My Life's Journey on My Bookshelves

A few days ago my friend Jerry sent me an unexpected book. When I opened my mailbox I saw the familiar Amazon logo but I knew no order was pending. If I have a book coming I listen for the sound of the Postal Service or UPS truck. I know the rhythm of their schedules, can discern the difference between the strained roar of the furniture truck and the contented whirr of the book delivery vehicle. If the books arrive early, as happened a few weeks ago when my free two-day delivery item arrived in one day, I am taken back, ill-prepared, and restlessly pleased. And when they’re late? Well, I mutter and sputter and try to decide who gets my frustration. Usually, the cat.

When I opened the package I was still a bit confused. I didn’t immediately recognize the book nor identify the sender. But after a little reflection I figured it out. A nice lunch with Jerry and Cyndi just a few days before—it had been a long time and they were in town briefly. A conversation about baseball, a favorite topic. Jerry’s inquiry about whether I had read a certain book; I hadn’t, nor had I heard of it. And Jerry, being Jerry, deciding I needed the experience. He liked it, so surely I would. Hence, the unexpected book. I have been thinking about why it delighted me so.

Our new home library contains
 the journey of my life in books,
none of which are about me.
We recently built and moved into a new home. The purpose of the move was to put living quarters on one floor so as to accommodate the bodies that continue to betray us, and to be a bit closer to our grandchildren who continue to restore us.

But if that was the purpose of the move, books were its soul. Sometimes I say we built a library and put a house around it. Between us, Joyce and I own something south of 3000 volumes—not a monumental number, but undoubtedly more than the average household.

The move to a new house stimulated conversations about culling books, but that was full of its own obstacles. In our family, even though all are readers we have different notions about books. The digital age has provided cover for those who believe books are to be read but not possessed. The advent of the Kindle and its ilk (I own one and use it all the time) allow entire libraries to be contained within a gadget about the size of the 40th Anniversary Edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, thereby freeing bookshelves for the display of Precious Moments figurines and pictures of the grandchildren.

My own view makes me sound like a Luddite, which I am not. For me, books are slices of my life. They encapsulate important moments and have the capacity to stir memories and trigger ideas. Even if the book is unread there is some reason why it sits on my shelf. A gift, perhaps. An impulse purchase. Assigned reading from a dreaded class in college. A childhood favorite. Something rescued from the shelves of my avid reader father, an alcoholic mostly missing from my life, but represented in my library. Whatever the reason, it was difficult for me to let any of these books go. It felt like a violation of some kind—as if the books had tender hearts and would feel rejected.

It reminded me of one of my graduate school professors who became legally blind. He was no longer able to use his beloved books. He decided to offer his collection for sale, listing it for what seemed to me to be an unusually generous price. When I talked with him about it he told me that he had originally planned to individually cost out each volume.

“I would pick up a book and hold it in my hand,” he said. “For me, that book was a corner turner. Its value to me was immeasurable. But to someone else it was nothing. The process just became too damn painful. I couldn’t do it. I put one price on the whole collection and walked away.”

That is what I was feeling as I prepared the books for moving. I took them off the shelves, handled them, recalled how they came to live with me. Some brought back a rush of feelings. While skimming certain theological volumes sometimes my heart was “strangely warmed,’’ like John Wesley’s, or they renewed an assurance from within my own faith tradition that if a seeker encounters something that is right “your bosom shall burn within you.” (Doctrine & Covenants 9:2b, Community of Christ, Herald Publishing House, Independence, Missouri.)

I selected a thin volume entitled The Sacred Journey, by Frederick Buechner (HarperCollins 1982). I fingered it lovingly, remembering that at a time when I was facing questions of vocation and meaning this book burrowed into my soul and gave me hope.

During my career I had opportunity to travel widely throughout the world and wherever I went I took with me a novel set in that place, using fiction as an eye into that culture. I reread Alan Paton’s classic Cry, the Beloved Country while in South Africa, and that trip washed over me anew as I slipped that book into the moving box. In India I read John Irving’s Son of the Circus, and his quirky style made him one of my favorite writers. Although best remembered as something of a 1980 potboiler miniseries, James Clavell’s Shogun was an insightful exploration of the Japanese culture. In each case handling the book in preparation for moving was like a return visit to a place fondly remembered, or sometimes remembered but not so fondly.

Hundreds of volumes have been written
about Sherlock Holmes, as if this fictional
character was real. In a way, he is.
My guilty pleasure in reading mysteries was generously stoked by the several hundred volumes on my shelves. In eighth grade I opened an Arrow Book Club flyer and was introduced to The Hound of the Baskervilles, the most revered Sherlock Holmes novel. That opened the door to a myriad of delights only true Sherlockians can understand. The Holmes canon has its own special place in the new library. While packing I was surprised anew with a short story or essay that conspired to be reread and derail the task at hand.

And that is what it comes to. Whether read or unread, these books sit side by side on their shelves. Some have life-changing significance for me. Some have no such claim on my heart, but they are still a part of the whole. Some came as Christmas gifts, packages I saved until last to open. Sometimes I guessed incorrectly and had to hide my disappointment. A few were the products of tantalizing shopping trips, gripping Barnes & Noble gift certificates. It was like when my grandmother opened the ice cream freezer at McMurray Grocery, a little corner store she ran in Toronto, and invited me to pick out whatever I wanted. Oh man! That grape popsicle has its literary equivalents and they sit on my shelves today.

They are not a bunch of books—they are a library. They belong together as a mosaic of ideas, happenings, characters, places, humor, drama, love, hope, and dreams that constitute pieces of my own life journey.

Over time they have presented me with unexpected delights, just as Jerry did with the book he sent. The books on my shelves are not done with me yet. I have a queue of about a dozen volumes on one shelf that are in line to be read next, but I have no illusions that it will happen that way. There are too many surprises in store.

Life still has its next chapters.

[This post is published simultaneously on, an interesting new venture in blogging. Readers of this blog might be interested in seeing the good writing that appears there.]


  1. Elaine Cook GraybillFri Mar 28, 09:03:00 AM CDT

    Very nice, Grant.

  2. Enjoyed the thoughts. Guess we won't be getting rid of too many books anytime soon for the same reasons. Our number of books would rival yours, but they are a reflection of our life together.

  3. I knew I'd met a kindred spirit forty-five years ago, when you longingly leafed through my first edition of "The Harvard Guide to American History," which had been in my home library since 1958. The book had cost me all of $12.50 at the UC Berkeley Bookstore. Then it happened: You bought the latest edition of that tome, now expanded to two volumes, and very soon I longingly, enviously, leafed through them, and nearly fainted when you told me you'd gotten this for something like $2 at a book sale. I knew for sure that my friend was, among other pleasing realities, a genuine BIBLIOPHILE. I celebrate your library, your new home, your blessed family, and our solid friendship spanning all these years. Congratulations!

  4. I hear you. We are in process of moving to Washington State. Nancy wants to "lighten our load" by having me cull books. . . Can't do it. Old or new, can't do it.

  5. Thank you for sharing Grant. I always enjoy reading your work. Blessings ~

  6. You and Joyce have touched our lives in the past and again recently. We are grateful for the wonderful time we had together. So enjoyed your blog. Hope you enjoy your new book. Hugs to both of you.

  7. Hi Grant. When I prepared to move into my apartment, after I sold my house last year, I went through my hundreds of books too. I listed any I found I could part with on Amazon and have sold at least fifty or sixty of those.

    The others still rest on my three piece wall unit in the dining room and a bookcase in my den/second bedroom.

    I too have a Kindle and enjoy it. I have seventy books on it so far. My kids gave it to me at Christmas after Bob 2010. I too am a "book person". But now I won't have to store them. They are stored in the cloud at Amazon.