The first book I can remember purchasing with my own money was Billy, by Albert French. It was a dark, gut-wrenching tale about a ten-year old boy, Billy Lee Turner, who was found guilty and executed for stabbing a young white girl in 1930’s Mississippi. I read this book in the sixth grade and its colloquial delivery and ever-present tension struck me more than any book I had read up until that point. It was heavy. Billy Lee lived in a time where Blacks were less than second class citizens, and seeing such hate directed at a child stuck with me for a long time.
Billy opened the door of my imagination. I remember being fascinated by the use of language as the dialog was true to speech used in rural, segregated South at the time. It was a powerful moment for me; I began to read not just for the story, but to absorb the language and take note of varying writing styles. That signaled the beginning of my love affair with books.
In a book I could imagine my awkward self decades, centuries in the past, light years in the future, in any place or situation imaginable or unimaginable. They offered me an escape from reality, and I sought refuge in books when my social dealings weren’t exactly satisfactory. I began accumulating books, reading anything I could get my hands on. In Miss Sexton’s seventh grade class, I was introduced to Uncle James Baldwin, with If Beale Street Could Talk. Fonny and Tish’s saga drew me completely into the world of Black literature.
Moving to New York in 2006, my collection grew. Drifting from one temporary living situation to another, my box of books got heavier with each impromptu move. New York is the perfect place for the bibliophile. Most of my reading happened underground. With the train being the preferred mode of transit, most days I had between 30 and 45 minutes of travel time in each direction to devour a new title. Above ground, I had Union Square (center of my universe) and thousands of ledges, staircases, stoops, fire escapes, cozy corners, coffee shops and bookstores to drop my bag and get away. Falling into conversation on the subway about a book I or someone was reading was the norm. It was heaven.
In New York, I also learned about bargain booksellers. Aside from the Barnes & Noble, Union Square, Strand bookstore on Broadway is easily responsible for 25% of my book collection. The sprawling $1 and $.50 book collection that covers the sidewalk outside is endless, disorganized bliss. Classics mixed in with kiddie books, mixed in with cookbooks and the occasional damaged new release makes for a great way to while the day away.
Between Strand and other book retailers, I was introduced to The Autobiography of Malcolm X As Told To Alex Haley (among my top 5 favorites), the drug-fueled magical mind of James Fry, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (finished in 3 days) and other brilliance by Walter Mosely and dozens of others. Here, I also happened across Native Son by Richard Wright, my favorite book ever.
Then I moved West, to Lost Angeles. I sent three sizable boxes home to Virginia to store at Mom and Dad’s house, and came here to rebuild my collection. I carried about nine essential books with me. Among them, Self Reliance, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which I will soon cover here. After some shady living arrangements, I felt it was time to get a proper shelf for my friends books.
I am a lover of all things second-hand, and have developed quite the keen eye for things to be potentially re-purposed. I spotted this gem on the side of the road:
…and tied that hoe to the roof of my car, brought it home, and went to work. With some spraypaint…
and some creativity (plus some wood, nails, a power drill, and aerosol fumes galore), I added five shelves and turned that discarded entertainment center into this:
A home for my books. Hooray. Since my time here felt a little more permanent that originally intended, I have had my parents gradually ship books from Virginia. Like fellow Page Turner Alise, thrift stores and many free book finds have helped contribute to the madness. Since January, my California-based collection has gone from this:
Some people hoard teeth and backfat. My thing is books. I’ve discovered tons of new authors recently, including favorites Thomas Chatterton Williams, Junot Diaz, and Dave Eggers, two of which will be covered in future book reviews. Mentioned in my intro, books have been there when people have fallen short. I’ve failed at several self-imposed “book-buying freezes”, but what’s the use? I see no chance of slowing down.
Look forward to the collections from the rest of the gang. How did your collection come to be?