My Annual Bookish Pilgrimage

This is a guest post from Kelly Anderson. Kelly has been involved with book reviewing online for eight years. She writes for Barnes and Nobles’ Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog and maintains her own book blog, ShouldaCouldaWouldaBooks. She can also be found on twitter gushing and nattering about various obsessions at @giddythings.
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I moved out of my hometown about a decade ago. Like most people, as the years pass, I find fewer and fewer reasons to return. My friends moved away, my parents sold my childhood home, that’s how it goes. But I find at least one reason to go back to my small coastal Connecticut town every summer for something I care about that hasn’t changed: my hometown library’s book sale.

This book sale is held once a year, towards the end of July. It is massive, with thousands of books up for grabs. I loved this sale growing up. But what keeps me coming back (aside from the amazing deals), is that it represents something about the town for me. These books, largely drawn from residents of the surrounding areas, are the embodiment of my hometown for me now. Everything that is amazing, awful and ridiculous about it is set out in front of me every time I return in a labyrinth of hundreds and hundreds of books.

When you arrive at the book sale, you walk into a large tent. And the first thing you see there are tables and tables of everyone’s copies of their book club novels- dozens of copies of The Help and The Secret Life of Bees. Then there’s the sizable mystery section, packed with James Patterson and a romance novel section with more Danielle Steele novels than I ever thought existed. (Almost always inevitably full of women trying to pretend like they’re looking at the thrillers section next door and surreptitiously grabbing romances under the cover of their copy of the New York Times.) This the tent for all the stereotypes you’ve ever read about Connecticut and it is the part that I think about whenever I remember how glad I am to have left it.

But then there are the tables of quiet rebellion and irrepressible quirk that sit just down the way. A small science-fiction section reliably features piles of genre classics from the ‘80s and ‘90s, proving that there are decades of nerds hiding out around town, cherishing their Asimovs and Robert Jordans. There’s also usually a fascinating gathering in the specialty section, intently discussing ship encyclopedias and exchanging knitting patterns. This is the part that reminds me of my friends. It is our lives as adolescents: trying to make ourselves humans in the midst of somewhere that increasingly fewer of us wanted to be.

But inside the library are where the real treasures lie. Here is the classics section, littered with generations of Mrs. Dalloways and Red Badges of Courage. It’s where the piles of Revolutionary War books live (the town was burnt out by the British for its Continental  Army sympathies- pretty much our historical high point), and the Art and Architecture section runs over with more gorgeous books every year. However stuffy their expression of it is, this town values education. It is the best of the intellectual life I lead here, the enthusiastically bookish debates and ideas that lay the foundation for my own motivation to contribute to education as an adult.

And then of course there is the sale’s “old and interesting” section, which is best of all. This is where my stoic New England town’s secret history of passions unfolds itself. I have found everything from an edition of poetry with a lovingly inscribed note someone wrote to their fiancé in 1884 to a gorgeous 1930s edition of A Sentimental Journey, complete with haunting Brothers’ Grimm like illustrations. And I always spend time in the perennial delight that is the “erotica” subsection, where Ovid’s Erotic Poetry inevitably sits alongside a truly amazing amount of copies of the Joy of Sex.

It is in this last section where the most animated conversations take place, where book nerds exchange numbers and you hear people gasping with delight. This is a place where all the enthusiasms that are usually held in check are put on display. And it is this last section that reminds me of the best thing that I took away from this town, which is my identity as a lifelong bibliophile. And that’s something that I first learned crouching in the stacks of this library. This part always reminds me of the best of the overwhelming love I experienced here, both from people I still cherish and from the books that made me who I am.

In a town that has changed a great deal since I’ve left, this book sale serves as a reminder of all the things that still continue without me. All these strangers’ books are, in the end, a better assurance that the world of my childhood isn’t really gone then all the familiar faces could have been. It’s still there. The proof is in the books.

 

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