Cooking is quite an affair at my house. My wife loves to cook, loves experimenting with exotic spices and cuisines. She also loves reading about cooking and, to that end, she has *gasp* probably hundreds and hundreds of cookbooks. I’m not exactly sure how many she has, and I probably don’t want to know, but our home is jam-packed with well-loved books stuck in every possible nook and cranny.
Sometimes I wonder how someone can possibly need or use that many cookbooks. My mom had only one recipe book when I was growing up, and we never went hungry. Now that I think about it, most of the things my mom prepared didn’t come from a book at all; rather they came from family recipes passed down in verbal form or hand-scribbled on scraps of paper.
Recently I came across food writer and cookbook author Diana Henry’s blog. Let me begin by saying that Ms. Henry has our family beat in the shelved book department—her tomes number around four thousand. Those are mostly cookbooks, you understand. That’s a 4 followed by three zeroes. Thassalotta cookbooks.
She writes: “At one point my (now) ex-husband and I stood on the landing of our home, the shelves of which housed about 4,000 books, most of them cookbooks. ‘Really you have to get rid of some of them. There’s just too many,’ he said. I was amazed that somebody could ask me to do this. It was almost as if he’d said ‘Get rid of your past.’ Because to me these weren’t just books. They were loved and used, but they were also, in a way, a map of my life.” (Italics added)
To me, this idea was both intriguing and poignant. Why do we buy one book and not another? Why do we keep some and not others? Indeed, why do many of us keep precious books our whole lives? Why do we never tire of re-reading old favorites?
Because the written word, the power of story, and the power of association combine to mark moments in our lives. Just like certain songs can have the power to whisk you back in time for a moment, our history, feelings, actions, and memories can be triggered by books. For example, what memories do you have of books you read in elementary school? In high school? What else was happening in your life at the time you read that seminal book that made one memory inseparable from another?
Books that comforted us in the past may be just the ticket after a bad week. Books we struggled through or didn’t like as youths (Ethan Frome and Old Yeller come to mind for me) can gain dimension and depth for us after a few decades of life experience.
Books can change us. They can change our mind, our point of view, our perspective, our attitude. They can give us hope, or make us weep. Once written, words don’t change, but as we change, so can our experience with a book.
Books offer us a way to count our days, to recall and organize our memories, and to figure out who we are and who we might become. As parents, we want our children’s lives to be rich with stories and imagination, so we share stories with them via lap reading from a very young age. In other words, most families ‘map’ their child’s earliest years with shared reading.
I found Ms. Henry’s perspective to be a good reminder that reading books throughout our lifetimes is an important way of connecting with our pasts. By extension, reading books together with your children is a wonderful way to create shared landmarks in the map of your lives. You and your children will never be too old to read together and make more shared memories.