I have 92 books on my nightstand. To be fair, I’m slowly working my way through, but with required reading for grad school, and work requests pinging my email every eighty seconds, it’s pretty slow going. A few are nonfiction books I’m reading in between novels that make me cry in the tub about what it means to carry on aboard this hostile, unfriendly speck we call Earth. Sometimes—for sanity’s sake and to re-light the pilot in humanity’s boiler room—you just have to pause 60 pages from the end of Jude the Obscure and pick up Where the Girls Are or Unveiling Kate Chopin. But that only accounts for 3 of 92. And that nightstand is just one of the spots in my house that is literally—not figuratively—overrun with the printed word.
My sprawling book collection isn’t all that bad on the face of things, until you fold in a fierce pack-rat streak, disposable income, and at least a half a dozen bookish thrift shops that I could walk to. (I don’t though—instead I waste fuel, in direct opposition to the green ideology of Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring is about four down in the back-corner pile.) Once a month, or whenever I’ve had a day that isn’t awesome, I take out thirty bucks and see what all I can get my hands on. It really is a trip shopping for books at stores usually praised for their gently cigarette-burned ’70s furniture. I feel like I never really know what I’m going to find crammed between copies of What to Expect When You’re Expecting and every James Michener phone book ever. And I’m always surprised by what people have decided to give up.
Nestled, as I am, in the conservative Main Street berg of Provo, I always go to the Mormon-run thrift superstore with a hint of hesitation. “I cleaned out everything moving or remotely incendiary last month,” I moan to myself with unfair intellectual elitism. “If I waste my time, I’m bound to be up to my tits in pregnancy how-to’s and DOS textbooks.” Still, I go. I skip the LDS section (because I’ve promised Neil I’ll stop bringing home laughably outdated homemaking tips and Korean translations of The Book of Mormon), but before I’ve made it to the end of the first four-foot section of shelving, my arms are overloaded and I’m dropping shit everywhere. By the end of the three long rows that I carefully scan for gems, there’s always some guy by the magazines who offers—more concerned than anything—to carry my books, or who cracks wise about how I should get a library card. I then edge through the clusters of meandering shoppers and palpable B.O. (which, as an un-showered, pajama-clad freelancer, I’m certainly contributing to) and head to the registers. I separate my finds into price-specific piles to make it easier for the cashier. “Three for $3, six for $2, seven for $1, three for 50 cents,” she says. It’s almost always under $30, yet I walk away with an armload of stuff that has to be double-bagged to avoid my having to pick up a spilled pile of paper and glue and cardboard halfway to my car. My hands are definitely grimier for the experience, but I feel like Bonny of “and Clyde” fame as I hurry away with all the humanity and life that’s printed on those thousands of pages. For less than what it costs to get my nails did or buy a mildly-fancy toaster, I own the ideas that brilliant people have slaved over, and whenever I feel like it I can dig through my overstuffed bookshelves and find that one I bought forever ago and now feel like crying about in the tub.
On the trip before last I hungrily yanked George Sand’s Indiana and the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay from the shelves. I gasped and almost yanked Neil’s arm out of alignment once when I saw Silent Spring, complete with a retro-patterned 1960s ex-library cover. I’ve seen countless books I already have, and surprisingly lots that go along with my feminist lit bent. Book hunting in the heart of Conservatown has given me things like Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar, Ella Cara Deloria’s anthropological Native American narrative Waterlily, a Chicana poetry anthology, the writings of Aphra Behn and Phyllis Wheatley, feminist literary criticism, Adrienne Rich, and the whole of Virginia Woolf minus The Three Guineas.
This cornucopia of intellectual gender studies and quality women’s literature is fairly opposite from what I expected of a town that is known as the Traditional Gender Roles capital of the reddest of red states. But that’s just another bullet point on my practical gender studies self-lecture tour: stop thinking in stereotypes. Just because the town is full of by-the-book Bible types doesn’t mean that these people aren’t smart. I’m always fighting that stereotype when non-Mormons are surprised that I went to BYU—”But, you’re so smart”—and even though I spend quite a bit of my time defending where I went to school as a scientific and intellectual font of knowledge, with one of the best libraries pretty much ever, I still buy into that crap about how a culture that pushes traditional families and stay-at-home wifery must be entirely backwards with regard to its intellectual habits. True, I have met quite a few Mormons who forget what they learned in BYU lecture halls about evolution being a thing, or bell hooks having a point about feminism belonging to more than just rich white ladies. But for the most part, this town has a remarkable population of people who know what’s out there and make informed decisions. In short, people who read. Which is, after all, what being religious is really all about.
I think my compulsive reading—and need for cheap books that I could write all over—sprang from the Mormon thing, or maybe it was just natural that I started to discover the world around me while I happened to be in college. The idea of religion taught me—if nothing else—that it’s important to engage with a text instead of just dragging your eyes over the pages, with one eye on Road Rules, so you could say that you’d read something. After all, religion is one of those things that we came up with, along with agriculture and government and cave paintings, to help us put some order to things so we could see beyond the cycle of birth, toil, and death. When we started folding those solutions into literature, we captured a unique power to sort things out in ways both more individual and universal, all at once. You can read a good novel the second, fifth, or eleventh time and learn something completely new about life or yourself, and people are literally giving these things away to musty boneyards filled with junk.
The guy by the magazines is definitely right about the library card (though I do have one). But while I can, I’ll be the crazy lady who fills every available surface with second-hand books that smell like cheap paper and someone’s basement. Even though I look at my 92 bedside reads (not to mention the rest of my hoarde, from paperback thrillers to the classics) and confront the impossibility of ever reading everything I want to, I know I’ll keep adding every time I see something promising. There is sure to be a time for everything, even DOS. My to-read list will always get longer, not shorter. But I’ve decided that’s a good thing. Better there be too many thoughts and dreams on paper, infinite like our own star-dust makeup, than too few.