When I moved to Montreal at the end of the nineties, I left my books (boxes and boxes of them) in a storage space. Because of some bad planning and incompetence on my part, they stayed there too long, and when I finally went back to get them they’d been given away.
Up until that moment I still had every book I’d ever owned: the first Tarzan book I’d ever read (Tarzan and the City of Gold), my second copy of Moby Dick (I’d lost the first in study hall in ninth grade and had to replace it), all the fantasy series I’d plowed through, my university textbooks, everything. Because these copies matched my visual page-memories, I could find things in them in a flash. They also had my notes and drawing. So losing them felt like losing part of myself and was devastating.
Well early last year I was on Abebooks and wound up searching the titles of a few of the books I’d remembered and had been thinking about. (It seems like me wondering about Steven Brust’s later Vlad books was maybe the starting point.) Anyway, as I searched, I realized that if I put some effort into it, I could probably reconstruct segments of that lost library. Anyone who’s seen me and the Beav in used book stores knows that setting either of us loose in the stacks with a project rather than simply to browse is asking for trouble. Browsing happens slowly shelf by shelf and takes time, but a project is going to be pursued monomaniacally and with the kind of detail only people operating outside the ordinary limits of time and hygiene can muster.
Aware of the danger—and of both the realities of my budget and the possible foolishness of the project (I mean, do I really want all these books again after all this time?)—I’ve kept things in check so far, buying in bursts to make sure I’m still interested in going further and starting with a lot of the inexpensive Bantam paperback fantasy series I’d collected and that haven’t maintained a strong following, which makes them easier to find with the exact cover I owned.
The good (or is it bad?) news is that project has been a great success. I cannot really explain why it’s so exciting to see all these books find a place on my shelves again, but it absolutely is. Looking at them sitting there for the first time in twenty years, I feel like I’ve found old friends. I remember where I was when I read them, who was nearby as I did, what was going on in my life, and how I felt. And I also think I remember the books themselves: the plots, the characters, the worlds and the relationships.
Obviously though this raises questions because memory is fallible. So are the books I have in my head—and some of them are fundamental and character-shaping documents of my childhood—are these books the same books printed on the pages I can now pull off my shelves and flip through? Or over time have these stories shifted in memory? Or, going further, have I remade them by using them as part of the process of making myself?
I truly don’t know and I’m curious to find out. So, having run across the phrase “a year of nostalgic reading” recently in a passing comment on a web page and finding it inspiring, I’m thinking about dipping into these books now and again as a break from other things. When I do and when I log them, I’m going to tag them so that I can pull them together in a series. My starting point and first tagged book is Split Infinity by Piers Anthony, which I’ve already started. This first foray into the past makes me think memory’s glass is in fact warped and rose-colored and in very interesting ways.