As the son of a librarian and a college professor, I can’t remember much about my childhood that didn’t involve books. They were everywhere. Oversized illustrated ones, piled high in my arms as I tottered out of the children’s department. Mass-market sci-fi and fantasy novels, marking my adolescence and teendom. Thick boring-sounding ones with the word “Labor” in the title, stuffing the shelves in my father’s office. Midlist trade paperbacks, stacked neatly next to my mother’s bed.
When I read Freya Howarth’s guide to building your own library in Psyche, though, it made me realize how much my relationship to books has changed. Not reading; books.
First came the purge that itinerant young adults know all too well. Every time I moved throughout my twenties and thirties — which wasn’t an insignificant number — I bemoaned the space and tonnage. Eventually, it reached a (nearly literal) breaking point. We had e-readers, my wife and I reckoned. Would we really miss fiction in physical form? That copy of The Power Broker we’d been lugging around for 15 years? So out they went went, to libraries and bookstores and tag sales and boxes marked PLEASE TAKE left on the sidewalk. Boom. Library drastically ensmallened.
But a funny thing about physical books: they have a way of creeping back in. Maybe there’s an incredible independent shop near your house. Maybe you’re on vacation and are surprised by how overjoyed you are to see a Barnes & Noble again. Maybe, after enough days reading warmed-over takes online, you’re so desperate for something with heft you find yourself with a cart full of translated French avant-garde. Or Japanese murder mysteries. Or Nigerian godpunk. Or maybe all three.
The point is, you might have done something much like I did once upon a time. Your library might be a quarter of the size it used to be. That’s not something to regret; it’s something to rejoice. Because now you get to buy books again. And Howarth’s piece might just spark a new spree.
In his essay ‘Why Read the Classics’ (1991), Italo Calvino sets out an itemised list to define the idea of classics and explain the value of reading them. What emerges from this is not a definitive and universal list of books that all people should read; instead, Calvino creates a framework for deciding on a far more personal list of books that have an enduring place in your own reading life. These are the books that you keep coming back to, keep thinking about, and that are points of comparison for everything that comes after. Some of these books might be widely acknowledged as classics – for instance, anything published in the distinctive black-clad Penguin Classics, the Penguin Modern Classics or in their orange Popular Penguin series. On the other hand, some of your classics might not feature on these types of lists. What matters is that they matter to you.
It can be helpful to group your classics on a shelf together for ready reference. In their book The Novel Cure (2013), the bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin recommend dedicating a shelf to your favourite books as a way to (re)affirm your tastes, and also to give you something to reach for if you are in a reading rut and need to be reminded of how good reading can be. ‘If you want to have a few series that are comfort reads for you, that you are going to reread during down moments or times when things are a bit hard, then it might be worth having those on hand as well,’ Dew, the librarian, suggested. Your old favourites can be a reliable source of solace.
Finding your own classics also means that you can break free of any prescriptive ideas about a limited canon of ‘great books’. You might gain a lot from reading some of the books on those lists, but it can also be rewarding to broaden your canon (see The Paris Review’s ‘Feminize Your Canon’ series, and sources for books by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ writers, for examples of how you might deliberately expand your reading).