Lessons Learned from a Lifetime of Books

I own 819 books: 35 are Star Trek, 48 are Conan the Barbarian, 19 are Terry Pratchett Discworld books, 17 are Anita Blake vampire hunter books by Laurell Hamilton. In addition, I have 14 books by Robert Heinlein, 24 cookbooks, and 18 books of Erotica.

I have 25 books in my “to be read” pile. I have six books that I would like to re-read just because I think they might make me a better writer. I have 14 books in a pile to be read later, mostly because I think they would help me with cooking or gardening. 

Goodreads informs me, I’ve read 348 books since I joined in Oct of 2014. (I’ve read 82 this calendar year). I belong to an online library and have 555 books on my wish list. 

Goodreads has an additional 223 books I’ve highlighted for later reading. I hope that the two lists have some overlap, otherwise, I have roughly the next seven years of my reading planned, and where would the fun be in that? 

I work in a middle school library, where part of my job is to read. I currently have four books checked out from my work library, three from my local library, and five from an online library. My last library fine was $6. (I thought the library was waiving fines because of COVID.) 

The crown jewels in my collection are the Lord of the Rings books. I own four versions, two versions of the movie, two Lord of the Rings bookends, seven Lotr video games, four action figures, (no they are not dolls!), and one book of Lotr postcards by the Brothers Hildebrandt. 

I used to own loads more books, but a flood and a marriage cut my collection down. 

So What? What Are You Trying to Tell Us? 

I’m a dork whose life peaked in the 1980s during high school, probably. Except for one tiny detail, the only books I’ve ever gone back and read have been the Lord of the Rings books. 

So why save all those books? What use are they? There must be a more profound mystery going on here. 

Lesson #1: Hope

I hoped to pass my books on to the next generation. I come from a family of four, and we’ve all had kids, but despite my best sales attempts, I’ve had no luck. My daughter would like my books when I die (I’ve had cancer twice, so it’s not that morbid) although she doesn’t enjoy reading. Still, hope persists — maybe we could use some in the middle school? 

Lesson # 2: Escape 

I use books to deal with mental and physical pain. As a kid, I had earaches so often, I had surgery on my ears five times. Earache is a particular agony that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I remember laying in my mother’s waterbed, propped up on pillows reading Conan the Barbarian. So why would I ever recycle those books? They took the pain away!

Books teach empathy. My parents divorced when I was seven. Indeed, one of my first memories is of my dad leaving. It happened 49 years ago. 

I’m the oldest of four kids, so lots fell on my shoulders. My mom melted down every Christmas because she would invariably pick a Christmas time that conflicted with my dad’s. Of course, if we kids stuck to our original plan and went to dad’s house, that meant we didn’t value our mother, or at least that was what she thought. 

Reading taught me empathy. Empathy gave me the survival skills I needed. 

Commercial break: ‘How to Disappear’, by Sharon Huss Roat: 

I finished this book yesterday. It’s about a high-school student that has severe social anxiety. I have social anxiety badly enough that I plan what I am going to say to the check-out lady at the grocery store. My daughter has social anxiety. 

This is the first book I’ve read that captures what life is like with social anxiety! I got this book, and this book got me. I’ll have my daughter read it, and I will recommend it to students at school. This book needs to be read. 

I am understood, I am not alone, and that came from reading.

Lesson #3: Inspiration 

Clearly, I love the Lord of the Rings books. I recall where I was when I read them the first time (split-level duplex in Middleton, WI, on a green sofa, overlooking a busy street), and I’ve read them so many times since that I’ve lost count. I remember what it felt like to finish the books and what an awful empty feeling that was. 

I’ve turned into an addict and chased that high for my entire life. I read Fantasy constantly, seeking something to compare. I’ve had no luck. (Yes, I’ve read Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.) 

I’ve thought long and hard about what makes Lord of the Rings so unique. 

Indeed, part of it is world-building. It’s abundantly clear that it was the work of a lifetime. 

For me, what rings true, is the contrast between ultimate good and evil. If you have one without the other, your story is out of balance, and will not ring true. In Lord of the Rings, we have a world in danger, making the tension in the book all the more significant. 

I’ve experimented with writing. I have a few stories out in the deep dark spots on the web. They’ve done well. 

When I turn seriously to writing, this is the theme I will pursue. 

Random thoughts 

  1. I did a book report on Stranger in a Strange land when I was in high school. Heinlein advocates for incest in the book. I included that in the report, which was a terrible idea on my part. Holy Buckets Batman, can kids be inventive in their bullying. Heinlein was pretty radical in the eighties; now, he is outdated and a product of his times. Read William Dietz — he does a much better job. 

2. I own a Bible published in 1901. It has meaning; it belonged to a favorite relative. Unfortunately, it’s in poor shape, so I don’t use it. (Plus, I’m not very religious.) I could pass it on to my daughter, or maybe try to sell it? I don’t know — I wish I were better at letting go of that sort of thing. 

3. There is no need to listen to the pretentious dickheads that tell you to read serious books. Fuck that! Life is too short — read what you like, read what makes you happy. Power to the People!

4. Never start the first book in a series unless the last book is published. Trust me on this one, and you will be much happier.

Almost to the end

I kept the Theory of Evolution next to the Communist Manifesto in my bookcase for years. I thought they made me look intelligent. Not a single time, in the roughly 30 years I owned those books, did a woman look at them and then swoon into bed, overcome by my keen wit. Keep books because you like them, or you think someone else might like them and don’t keep books for any other reason. 

So, it’s Sunday afternoon. I’m off to the library, and then I am going to read the day away. Join me in a delightful book. I’ve started a historical fiction about a Chinese girl in Atlanta at the turn of the century. Me, a 56-year-old white male, identifying with a 17-year-old Chinese immigrant living in Atlanta in 1899. 

That’s some serious magic. 

2 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from a Lifetime of Books

  1. I really identify with this piece you wrote. I also have books all over the house – I’m not sure how many. The book I went back to read and loved the second time around was Farewell to Arms by Hemingway. This was after a trip to Stressa, Italy, and then from there I went on to Lausanne, Switzerland – the same route as Lt. Frederic Henry. Anyway, shortly after that trip I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and the odds were not good. That was in 2011. I am still here and have since read many, many books, wrote a novel ( The Cross We Bear, proceeds to go to cancer research). wrote poetry, and painted many pictures. It is an escape from physical and mental pain. On empathy – I know for me the cancer made me more empathic to other people sufferings. I wish you all the best and hope you hang on to your treasure of books for a long long time.


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