Most people don’t know this about me, but I collect rare books. Not just any books, mind you, but classic works of literature. I own very old copies of The Scarlet Letter, A Tale of Two Cities, Anna Karenina, and Wuthering Heights, just to name a few. In total, I own about 25 masterworks, and I’m always on the prowl for more.
I don’t know what inspired me to start my collection, but from a very young age I held a deep appreciation for the classics. While most of my friends were reading The Babysitter’s Club or Sweet Valley High in middle school, I spent one summer reading The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. In fact, I took that book to Fenway Park and read it in the middle of a Boston Red Sox game – much to the dismay of my mother.
In high school, I devoured Shakespeare. In college, I took every literature elective I could, obsessing over novels like The Awakening by Kate Chopin and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Maybe it was the fact that I grew up in New England and spent my childhood touring the homes of famous authors like Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Maybe it was because I was an only child and turned to books for entertainment. Or maybe it was because I always loved a good story whether it was told through movies, television, theatre, photography, art, or a good book.
Part of the fun in collecting classic novels is visiting vintage bookstores, but with less than 1,000 secondhand book shops in existence across the United States today, they are hard to find. Most booksellers have brought their businesses online to sites like eBay or Etsy, which is understandable given the times. They can reach more customers that way. While shopping online can be fun, there’s no substitution for the mom and pop, run-down shop with rows and rows of cramped bookshelves, creaky wooden floors, and the stench of decaying paper. I could stay in those stores all day long, scanning the shelves from top to bottom, hoping to find a hidden treasure. That’s the best kind of scavenger hunt.
What also fascinates me is thinking about the journey that each book has taken from publication to disintegration. How many shelves did the book sit on? How many owners did it have? How many times was it read? How well was it loved? Many of the books I own have names written inside the front covers in old 1800s calligraphy. Some even have messages. I like to think that by owning the books, I possess a small link to the past, keeping not only the stories alive, but the previous owners’ memories too.
For now, most of the novels sit on my living room shelf. They make a great backdrop for my Halloween decorations this time of year. Every time I walk by, I think, “I should actually read one of these.” But I never get around to it. Life gets in the way.
Now and again, I take one off the shelf and flip through it, noting the browning pages, pervasive water stains, and torn bindings. Despite their imperfections, the books make me smile. They make me happy. And they inspire me to keep on writing. One day, perhaps, there will be someone looking down at my book, wondering who wrote it, who owned it, and who loved it. I can’t think of anything more gratifying.