This is a guest post from Christine Ro. Christine writes about books for Literary Hub, VICE, and the Ploughshares blog. She occasionally writes about other topics, because someone once told her (although it seemed implausible) that there’s life outside of books. You can read her work at https://www.christinero.com.
My bedroom, like the bedrooms of many only children from middle-class families, has remained a sort of monument to my 17-year-old self. There are the postcards friends sent me around the turn of the millennium. There are the burned CDs of earnest Northern European rock bands. And, of course, there are the books: shelf upon shelf of collected books that, more than any other physical items, are testaments to my childhood and adolescence.
These are sorted in a sort-of idiosyncratic way, with labelled envelopes marking the divisions: “comic fiction” gets its own shelf, as does “classic fiction.” “Quasi-memoir/biography” is separate from but neighboring “Memoir/biography.” I’ve despaired over what to do with nonfiction that doesn’t neatly fall under social science, arts, or any of the other categories that show how little nonfiction I read in comparison with fiction. So there’s a catch-all category called “Guides,” where many hard-to-classify texts end up.
I visit my parents twice a year or so, and I’ve developed a comforting routine when it comes to these books. As their home is still internet-less, I plow through books at a pace unmatched since I was a kid. Mostly I re-read books from this increasingly antique-seeming collection. I like tracing their (and my) histories through the physical record a book contains. All the books in Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy series, for instance, are warped through water damage—a legacy of many a bath taken while commiserating with Sport, Beth Ellen, and Harriet.
There’s also a physical record in the memory tokens these books contain, used in lieu of bookmarks. These might be old photos, receipts, play programs, weird post-it scribblings, whatever. There’s a nostalgic twinge to not only picking up one of these decades-old books, but also stumbling across some long-forgotten artifact from my life inside their pages.
Another satisfying aspect of revisiting these books is tracing the distance between the person who bought them and the one now reading them. Reading Zadie Smith or Nick Hornby is a different experience now that I’m a migrant to the UK, vs. my teenaged Anglophile self. The casual classism of a Wodehouse or Christie novel rubs me the wrong way now, even if I often re-devour one of their works.
I’m not likely to ever own a home, and my childhood library won’t be around forever. But in these middle years where I’m lucky enough to have a place and a family that store my books, having a personal library to return to is as much a part of homecoming as seeing my relatives.