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Lost Books and a History of Reading Them
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I grew up in a dilapidated but much-loved house out in the middle of nowhere. In the days before cable TV, Internet, and cell phones, my brother and I and my mother were often thrown back on whatever resources the house afforded. We had a television that got four stations if you counted public television (which we didn’t), and when my brother and I tired of squabbling over what to watch, one of us—usually me—would give up and find a book to read. This was not always an easy thing to do. Although my family’s term for people who liked to read was the wonderfully straightforward epithet “reader,” an explanatory title that was often accompanied with a shoulder shrug as in, “Well, you know. She’s a reader,” and although my mother was pleased that I was “a reader,” we didn’t have all that many books. Or so I thought at the time. Unless I remembered to get something out of the school library or I saved or begged enough from my mom to get something from the Scholastic catalog, I would be thrown back on the same titles from my own small store, many of which I secretly felt I had outgrown, again and again.

And yet, when I look back on it, I see that I was wrong. I am now astonished at how many books we actually had in our house; I hardly counted them as “real” books at the time. I know how they looked and remember how they felt in my hand, where they were kept, why they had been acquired and saved. In retrospect the collection seems random but then it struck me as perfectly ordinary, and I don’t doubt that it was very nearly the same as the collection of books you’d find in any other family of our particular era, social class, and region. We doubtless had those books because we were supposed to have them: they were designed for people like us, and we were found and categorized by them at the very moment we thought we were selecting them. And yet they did not fulfill their appointed office so neatly as all that; they branched out and suggested kinds of readings and interpretations that could not have been predicted by their publishers. They composed my first library, and I read some of them over and over, using them as placeholders that could help me make a kind of imaginary archive of other sorts of books I thought might be out there but that I did not yet know how to find. I read them eccentrically, practicing a kind of close attention to their prose on some days, and letting my eyes drift over the familiar pages on others.

A fair few of the books were quite prominently displayed; these were our household’s tiny, idiosyncratic store of rare books—rare to no one but ourselves, and rare according to some calculus that had more to do with what the books looked like than what they contained. In pride of place was a full set of green hardcover Funk and Wagnall’s encyclopedias from the late 1960s. These had been purchased because my mother, like many others of her generation, believed that it was necessary to have a set of encyclopedias at home so we could study. Having them might even convert a regular person into what was often referred to as “college material.” Despite the fact that this particular set of encyclopedias arrived in 1967, roughly the same year my brother and I arrived, and despite the fact that they would be almost comically outdated by the time we needed to use them, they were dusted regularly and carefully, and no knickknacks, gewgaws, or misshapen school art projects were thought worthy of sharing a shelf with them.

We did end up examining those volumes on occasion—some contained what my brother and I considered interesting if highly improbable anatomical drawings—but more fascinating to us were my mother’s high school yearbooks. We looked at them a lot more than my mother did; she hardly seemed to remember they were there. When...



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