The Gift Certificate

girl thumbs through the old book
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For Christmas I received a gift certificate to a local book shop from a student.

Think of it.

This was not a plastic, credit card shaped rectangle that could be thrown into a shopping cart along with milk and toilet paper at the local grocery store.  (If that is how you shop for teacher gifts, I am not judging you.  That’s how I shop for gifts in this season of my life, and I know how precious a commodity time is.)  It was an actual paper certificate that was signed in ink by one of the store clerks for a twenty-five dollar value.  Someone had to go into the store and request it at the counter.  This was precious.

I have spent countless hours scouring bookstores in my lifetime.  I like to run my fingers over book spines like they will imbibe a sort of energy into me, or vice versa, and to smell their pages before purchasing.  I have been a book smeller since I first smelt the glorious fragrance of my mom’s childhood copy of Skip after sitting in a box in the basement, gathering a patina of must, moisture, and age over years.  Skip is the story about a dog, and this particular copy was printed in the seventies with a yellow and orange watercolor background, though I never read it because I was not an animal lover like she was.  However, a secondary book that I pulled from that box was her copy of 101 Dalmatians.   (Anyone sensing the dog theme of my mother’s youth?) I read that book and loved it purely because it had lost its dear little cover and the first pages were filled with ink drawings of dogs walking in the park with their look-alike owners among pruned trees.

Not all books live up to this fine age.  Certain books have that horrid smell of a chemical laser printer.  There is a difference between book smells that renders them good or bad.  I’ve categorized the good ones down to four: forgotten library dry, basement hoarder musty, dark corner brittle, and freshly printed ink.  I’ve thought entirely too much about the smell of books.  I would buy a perfume called “Book Smell”.

Can I patent that?

Back to the point.  I’ve spent a lot of time in bookstores.  I’ve purchased quite a few books but not as many as you might think, because I’m carefully selective.  There may be reasons for this, like how I treat books like loyal friends verses mere aquaintances, but it is mainly due to the fact that I am not wealthy.  Of course, I have the ability to max out my credit card on books and build a pretty stellar library in the cabin level of my home.  However, I am much too practical and responsible for that, as much as I would love the instant gratification of such a room.

(Sidebar confession: I look at homes for sale based on the acreage of the lot and two story library.)

In being selective of what books I actually buy, nothing hurts me more than to spend $100 on a textbook that I have to slog through.  That’s at least four, if not five, brand new hardcover releases or special edition classics.  That’s ten to fifteen classic novels printed by Dover or Signet.  Oh, the pain.  The unsufferable agony.

I’ve always been a classics girl, quite skeptical of new books on the proverbial block.  Like, where did they come from?  Who do they think they are?  Prove your worth to me, you newbies.

I know, I know.  The classics were new releases once themselves and sold very well at some point, which is why they are, well, classics.  I wouldn’t have my beloved classics without new releases.  Nevertheless, I am an old soul at heart and therefore, the language and the atmostphere of the classics is like being home.

I’d like to know why that is.  Why do I feel at home with a book that is at least over fifty years old?  Why, when I was young, did I wish that I grew up during the time of the Titanic? The Civil War? Edwardian England? What influenced what?  Was I changed by the books or was I drawn to the books because of who I was?

Moving on.

I took my lovely gift certificate, neatly tucked into my lightweight backback, ready to splurge on a new, hardcover book.  I was going to step out of my comfort zone and purchase something recent.  I was clothed with brazen zeal and motivation, like Don Quioxte riding into misadventure. I spend about forty-five minutes perusing and while I picked up a five dollar copy of Austen’s Persuasion, I could not decide on a hardcover book over twenty dollars.  I picked up several, felt spines, and inhaled pages…my usual custom.  I carried around a couple, put them back.  I held Persuasion until the bitter end.  Apparently, five dollars is nothing for me to spend on a book; it’s practically loose change — free, no sacrifice.

But fifteen?  That’s painful unless absolutely doubtless.  Twenty-eight to thirty-two dollars, the average price of a new release on my estimate, is like piercing my heart with a double bladed dagger.  What if I were to spend my entire gift certificate with the store clerk’s personal signature on it on a gamble…on a new release which hasn’t been fully reviewed and vetted as gold?  What if I buy it and hate it?  I know that you all have read the introduction and maybe a chapter or two of numerous stacks of books on the nightstand or coffee table like I have, and we never finish them do we? All because of time or boredom or some other reason.  I did not want this gift certificate to purchase one of those risky books.

Instead, I returned Persuasion to it’s proper place next to Pride and Prejudice and left with nothing, informing my husband I couldn’t decide which book to buy, because I know I can check out Austen at my school library any time I wish.  I had found plenty of books that caught my eye, sounded interesting, or would inform me in ways that would be beneficial.  But were they truly worth the beloved gift certificate?

If you only had twenty five dollars to spend on books for an entire year, what would you decide on?  How would you decide?  Would you impulsively buy a best seller with the click of your touchscreen on Amazon or a new release with its attractive, glossy jacket?  Would you buy a few cheap paperbacks?  Would you splurge on a nicer copy of one of your favorite novels, with a cloth and board cover?  Would you find a used book store to shop?  When I am unsure of what I really want, I go and check out twenty books at the library, drag them home in a laundry basket, and palm each one, feel the page thickness between my fingertips, inhale the guts of the thing like a fine cigar, read the first few pages, and decide if I’m committed.

I mean, would I love this book?  Would I marry it? Would I die for it? (I’m only half joking…remember that saying, ‘If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?’)  Or I sit in the corner on the floor and my legs crisscrossed in the library until I decide what to drag home and possibly, if I love it beyond all comprehension, buy my own copy to reread and reread again.

Which begs the question…do you reread books?  Novels?  Nonfiction?  Do you reread poetry?  Theology?  Philosophy?  Myth?  Science?

What exactly do you reread?  For those books that you reread tell who you are.

I don’t reread nearly as much as I want to.  Well, that’s not true.  I tell myself I like the idea of rereading and knowing a book inside and out, cover to cover, chapter by chapter, but the only books that I know that well are the books I teach every year.  Do you know how many times I’ve read Dicken’s A Christmas Carol by this point? I’ve lost count but has to be over ten times, which is a lot to read one book, if you really think about it.  Likewise for Anne of Green Gables and The Hiding Place.  The only other book that comes close to being reread that much without having taught it is To Kill a Mockingbird. If I’m not teaching a book, I tell myself I do not have the time to reread it, because there are so many books that I haven’t read yet and want to.  But it is a discipline just like anything else. I have to force myself to reread books in order to savor them the way that I want to.

This goes for writing, too.  I have to fight to sit down and work intellectually if I don’t have a deadline to meet.  I’m a wife, a mother to three children of differing ages and needs, vacuuming up after our 140 pound mastiff, driving to the horse barn at least four plus times per week, teaching full time as a middle school classical instructor while simultaneously

helping my daughter with her math homework

and playing cars with my son

and having a heart to heart with my other daughter before

spending time with my husband one on one in the evenings and then, well, then I have to sit down and

research an online database and write a few pages for that paper due at the end of the term

and submit it for feedback from my professor.

Nevermind that work meeting I need to attend and the accreditation report due Tuesday or the five loads of laundry waiting to be shoved into the machine.  The dirty dishes are getting crusty.

This is my brain on coffee.

This is how I tunnel down the rabbit hole into all the reasons why I have no time.  But everyone has the same twenty four hours and I still have the same twenty four hours I did ten  years ago, or twenty years ago, it’s just utilized differently.  Stopping myself in my tracks when this list of reasons pops up to derail my best intentions has been helpful as I transition each day to my reading and writing.  I’ve also decided that anytime I’m about to complain out loud about anything at all, no matter how big or how trivial, I will pray instead.  I’ve got some work to do.

To which my husband evokes Bill Murray’s Phil Conners statement to Rita: Gosh, you’re an upbeat lady.

You see, I did this several years ago with reading. Being intentional, that is.  I grew up reading everything I could, from the school to the church library, writing my name on the checkout cards during card catalog days.  R.L. Stine, to Max Lucado, to the cereal box.  I know, right?

As I entered motherhood and didn’t prioritize my time, reading and writing fell off my list in a major way.  I gave myself excuses as to why I couldn’t invest in either, which is just a bunch of malarkey and fear, because reading and writing costs zero dollars and is pretty easy for me to come by.  Wake up early, stay up late, shut off the TV, whatever.  There’s no gym membership fee, no drive to get somewhere to actually take part in reading.  It’s actually one of the easiest hobbies, jobs, and careers to have, in that sense.  The pain and difficulty of being a reader and a writer is that you have to get out of your own mind and just do it.  Even when the book or the writing is uninspiring, uninteresting, unexciting.  Even when you are rejected.

So I decided to read voraciously again the year I turned thirty.  I read every classic book that I could spare time for, which turned out to be a whole heck of a lot.  Capote’s In Cold Blood ,Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  Steinbeck, Dostoevsky, Sinclair, Camus, Austen.  My husband and I would hit the university library every week with our outdated alumni school ID’s, pulling volumes off of the grey, metallic storage shelves located in a lower level warehouse space.  We would check out several at a time and then go home and just devour them, sitting side by side and sipping coffee on the sofa or on the patio chairs out back on mild evenings.  When I finally worked up the guts to apply for the teaching position that I wanted, they asked for a book list of what I had read over the past year.  To this day, five years after getting that teaching job, my colleagues still bring up that daunting reading list.  And I look back and think, how easy was that?  I mean, yes, I had to finish my master’s degree to land the job.  But if all things being equal, that’s what they remember.  That crazy reading list I had a blast investing in and conversing with my husband over countless hours about what we found between the pages.

Which brings me back to my gift certificate that I have not spent yet, because I cannot decide what book is worthy of such a splurge.

Maybe I should go to the library.

woman in black long sleeved looking for books in library
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