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Windows to the Soul

Which books do you consider your indispensables?

By William Shelton • September 28, 2023

Our bookshelves are the subconscious windows to the soul. Often unintentional, what we read is a direct reflection of where our thoughts lie, which subjects we are exploring, emotional or physical struggles we are trying to address, and the solace we seek in familiar books or authors. Rarely is our collection static, though there are certain books to which we cling for a lifetime.

An important question is not 'what was the first book you read?' but 'what was the first book you purchased to keep?' At what point in your evolution as a reader did you discard this book, or does it remain with you today? The very first book I purchased, at age fourteen, and for the princely sum of fifty cents, was a garage sale paperback copy of The Godfather by Mario Puzo. It was a motion picture edition, containing lurid photos from the movie, which only heightened the allure of murder, sex, and intrigue contained within its pages. After having spent years perusing the shelves of dreary books left by generations of long dead relatives in the family homeplace, my "first purchase" book was a gateway to acquiring other books which promised equal stimulation: Stephen King, John Grisham, Ann Rule, and T.E.D Klein were favorite authors of my teen years. What became of that copy of The Godfather? I vaguely remember it surviving through several college dorm rooms and early apartments. In spirit it remains on my bookshelf still in the form of the Easton Press edition of the novel.

Which books do you consider your indispensables? Foundational books remain the core of our library always. Certain authors or genres may hold pride of place for a season. There are series of books which attract the eye today but lose their luster perhaps after a decade or so, The Dark Tower notwithstanding. However, the 'Boaz and Jachin' of our library are the books which we part with never. Perhaps they were gifted to us by a special person, or were instrumental in our development, personal philosophy, or education. Maybe they are just a damn good read. If we were reduced to keeping only one book, what would it be? Religious texts spring to mind, and indeed I have a beautiful edition of the Holy Bible on display in my personal library, but how often do I read it? Likewise, in the fifth grade I was challenged by my mother to read Gone With The Wind, and after having conquered that beast with the sword and shield of Dictionary and Thesaurus, I will forever own a copy as testament to my victory. Dune by Frank Herbert, was equally difficult to master with its tongue twister names, but I turn to it time and time again as a beloved favorite. If my library were reduced to a single volume it would be Lanterns on the Levee by William Alexander Percy. Principally a poet, Mr. Percy (the cousin and guardian of the novelist Walker Percy) blended beautiful prose, classical references, much humor and biting wit, when composing his autobiography.

Perhaps you are a collector, and no home would ever be complete without a stout set of Harry Potter, Agatha Christie, or Tom Clancy. All are equally adept at defending yourself against a rainy afternoon, or home invasion. Books present an interesting item for collecting due to the myriad reasons why they are collected. Binding type is a popular choice, so are genre, author, and period of publication. A single collection of first editions might include everything from Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand to Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, as long as 'first edition' is the baseline. A collector of the obscure may favor a copy of Davy Crockett's Almanack. A private library dedicated to beautiful photography books may have on proud display a copy of Winogrand 1964. A thought provoking question for those who purchase books for collecting sake is, Do you ever dare loan your books to others?

Where we store books in our home is insightful. Our 'presentation books' we often use as decor in the main living area, though Edith Wharton would say that displaying books in the drawing room was a vulgar demonstration of wealth. In our race to ever smaller living spaces who has room for a private library? No kitchen should be without an array of cookbooks, or perhaps just a single true and trusty one, such as the sacred writing of the scribes: Julia Child, Betty Crocker, or the modern saints of culinary art, Ina Garten and John Kanell. But, even more delicious than the cookbooks, are the books which we secret in nightstand drawers, tuck beside the bathtub, or inside laptop bags for furtive reading on the subway. Does the august Ivy-league professor privately indulge in Twilight fan fiction? The worthy suburban matron pine for an hour lost in the pages of Amish romance novels? For me it is the published work of Kitty Kelley, and now I have lain bare the darkest corner of my soul.

Books are treasures, and like treasure some people hide them away for private enjoyment, or proudly display them to the envy of others. There are readers who value the content of the pages more than the condition of the cover, and many a battered book is rich in sentimental value to its owner. Likewise, there is the legend of the bejeweled copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam, so priceless it was never read until it (allegedly) met its fate on the Titanic. Like Jacob Marley and his inexorable chains, we drag collections of books with us from apartment to house, home state to foreign land, rather than part with them. No doubt some precious volumes have even gone to the grave with an owner who could not face the prospect of eternity without their beloved book of choice.

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