My son stood spellbound in front of shelves that must have seemed endlessly high and wide from his small vantage. The Study was a familiar room to him, one he often requisitioned for all manner of creative projects and mischief. The surrounding mass of books had been nothing more than background scenery. I’m not sure what triggered it, but today he took them all in spine by spine.
I watched inconspicuously from my desk as he fingered past the precious and brittle volumes inherited from my grandfather, the preacher. He stared happily at the colorful set of Calvin & Hobbes compendiums, then glassed over a bit when he got to the dense rows of muted color that marked the theology section. Pausing for a moment, he took note of interesting molecular shapes and anatomical poses on the spines of the medical textbooks. He lingered longest in the fiction section, excitedly recognizing a few titles that we’ve read aloud as a family. Just when I began to self-indulge in the sentiment of the moment, he posed the question that had been brewing in his head.
“Dad, have you actually read all these?” There was no effort whatsoever to hide his incredulity.
And so I was brought rudely back from my parental reverie. After his grand tour through the titles that mean so much to me, his first reaction was to question whether or not I was using them for their intended purpose. Fair enough.
Taking the accusation in stride, I confessed that no, I have not read every book in our library. Sensing his disapproval, I felt the need to
defend myself use this as a teachable moment.
I explained to my boy that the practice of stockpiling books we’ve already read (his main concern, judging by the inciting question) is way down on my list of library benefits. It’s definitely on the list, but it isn’t the chief end of my book hoarding. Except for the few gems that fit into the “reread as often as you can” category, a library full of previously read books can easily become a sort of in-home monument—vaguely commemorating past accomplishments, having no real present purpose.
In contrast, the array of books in our home is intended for ongoing, well-rounded usefulness. They’re there to show us what’s possible, not venerate what’s already been. Even the history books, which are expressly about what has already been, are there to light an inquisitive fuse and point us forward into new exploits.
So my library has a diverse lot of books and, more importantly, an open invitation to the kids: Come; stoke your interest in all kinds of incredible things! Curious about those wall paintings you saw in the pyramids on TV? Let’s look through this book of hieroglyphs and learn how to write our names. Wondering what I’m talking about when I say your runny nose is caused by a virus? Well check out this picture of one of the little menaces right here in my old virology book (and yes, it is freaky that this guy is attacking your nose right now). Not following what we’re talking about in family worship? Look at this, the Bible atlas shows exactly where it happened so you can picture the scene better.
So it goes, on and on.
It starts with that kind of hand-holding (cattle prodding in some cases) and then one day you find a kid sitting on the floor reading a Latin/English dictionary because he “felt like it.” Next day, it’s a book on the history of baseball.
That’s it right there. Curiosity kindled, self-learning employed, parental reverie achieved. Sure, we use the internet too but, for my kids at least, a room full of books inspires more than a blinking search engine cursor.
So, yes, I have a big library with a bunch of books I haven’t even read yet. I’m not a poser; I’m prepared. Always ready to fan the flames of my children’s imagination with a well-placed book, even if it’s one I haven’t gotten around to reading yet myself.
[A previous version of this work appeared on Story Warren]