Love is a strange thing. It's hard to say where it starts.
At about the age of four, I started getting Dr. Seuss books through the mail. Did it start then?
Or did it begin even before that, with the smell of books, the look of leather binding in the light, the books gleaming in the bookcase my mother built, occupying pride of place in the living room?
Did it start the day the bookmobile pulled up in the strip mall behind my house?
I'm not sure. I know one thing, this love of books got pretty firmly entrenched the day my grandfather took me to an auction in the Ohio countryside. I was 10, I think.
After poking around for awhile, he bought me a whole box of books. Published in the 1880s, they were just about the perfect size for my hands. They were bound with richly dyed leather, and every page was a masterpiece of typography. At the top of each page was a short, italicized phrase describing the current topic. At the frontispiece of each book, and sprinkled throughout, were beautifully detailed pen and ink drawings.
All the books were biographies, and each was written by a man named Jacob Abbott. Now Abbott, according to my grandfather, was a peculiar fellow. A man of wide learning and prodigious memory, he didn't even have to do research for his books. But he had a weakness -- for whiskey.
So his publisher worked out an unusual arrangement. He would give Abbott a case of whiskey, and lock him into a room with the case, a subject, and writing supplies. Within a week, Abbott would stumble out of the room, the last drop of whiskey fresh on his tongue, neatly coinciding with the final, scrawled word of his manuscript.
I don't know how long all this went on, and I don't really know if it's true. But I do know that I had about 20 of those books, which is a lot of whiskey.
I spent many, many hours in those clear, elegant, and luminous little books, obliterating time and distance. And in those intoxicating hours, I learned a deep appreciation for the artifact of the book, much the way a carpenter-to-be might learn the feel of fine wood.
Each one of the Abbott books had a bookplate in it. Each one was numbered: "Property of Leroy Stagg, No. ___ " The Abbott books were numbered into the thousands.
It's hard to know when love starts. But surely it is deeply connected to all our senses, and our oldest memories. For some reason, the poem on Leroy Stagg's bookplates stays with me, and at the end of the old year, and the beginning of the new, I'd like to share it with you. Here it is:
If thou art borrowed by a friend
right welcome shall he be
To read, to study, not to lend,
but to return to me.
Not that imparted knowledge
doth diminish learning's store,
but books, I find, if often lent,
return to me no more.
For a librarian, that's tantamount to wedding vows.
May all your old loves prove as worthy as mine, and your future be as bright. Happy New Year!