THE FIVE READS: The Care and Feeding of Books, and our Souls.

Growing up, we always had a library in our home filled with books of all genres. My parents and sister are academics, and my grandmother was a County Librarian, so books have always held a special place in our lives. 

When I was born, there was no spare bedroom in our house, so I was given the library, which would double as my bedroom.  So you could say I was literally raised, surrounded by books. I vividly remember staring night after night at the spine of one book in particular—an Alfred Hitchcock novel with the silhouette of a man in a cape. That spine scared me to death. It was the “monster under the bed” for me.

Still, when designing my first home, the first requirement was to find space for a room dedicated to books. It was as essential as the kitchen, or the bedrooms.

When the house was complete, and as I unboxed carton after carton—filling the shelves, I’d remember how my grandmother would paste nameplates inside the books in her library. She had had a label made just for this purpose. It read “from the library at the Owl Tree” –as she had named her house in the woods.

She also laid down a tradition that was more commonplace in her generation than ours. The goal of a library was not to “collect” books, but to “care for them.” The library was not a trophy case, but a storeroom of the memories of stories-told, and of facts and information used to fill our brains. In my family, books were not personal possessions, held-on like the family china or jewelry. Books were to be shared, passed-on, and given to those you love as a token of affection. She often said, “All books have a soul—one that it is transferred from author, to reader, to reader, to reader. I give a little bit of my soul to whomever I give a book to.”

My mother, who worked as a therapist and reading specialist to young children, carried on that tradition, by sharing her favorite classic children’s tales to her friends with young children. “There’s nothing more valuable than the time spent reading a book to a child—the bond is irreplaceable,” she’d say. 

And, this habit of sharing books was passed on to me as well. Being in the business professions, I’d give books by Jim Collins, Peter Drucker or David Aaker to my staff and clients—always with an inscription, as my grandmother and mother had taught me. I have also tried to carry-on my mother’s tradition of giving gifts of classic books to new parents. I have always looked at my bookshelves as a type of library—one that is most useful when the thoughts, philosophies, and fantasies held between the boards are shared with others.

A few months ago I was visiting a friend in Colorado, working with him on some personal business coaching. On a break, we took a walk into town, and found a bookstore. He found one of his favorite books on a shelf, The Story of Edwin Sawtelle, picked it out and headed to the cash register, and immediately handed me the book. No inscription, no “from the library at the Owl Tree” label, but a meaning as deep—a gift of thanks and friendship, by sharing something he loved with me.

As we move to reading digital books, sharing has actually become easier. A few pecks at the keyboard and your heartfelt thanks, and the ability to share an emotion with someone you care about can be instantaneously around the world—from your library to theirs.

Of course, there is something just a bit more special, receiving a physical book—especially one that is inscribed, and delivered in person. I guess souls travel more easily in the physical world.

The author's library at Hundred Aker Wood.

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