by David McElroy
I have very few pictures from my past. I save few mementos, at least not in an organized fashion. I have boxes of junk that I’ve pulled out of desk drawers when I’ve moved in the past, but only because I haven’t gotten around to discarding the 99 percent of it that’s junk.
When I talk to others about their past, they frequently pull out photo albums or scrapbooks. I have very little like that to show. If you want to travel through my past, my bookshelves are the place to start.
I spent an hour Monday night idly looking through my books. I wasn’t looking for something to read. I wasn’t even opening them. But spending time looking through books I haven’t read in years — just touching them and reading the titles — is a bit like time travel. Even if I never read a book again, it seems to carry a bit of me in it — whatever I was like when I experienced the book the first time.
This German history book takes me back to when I was a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Alabama. I was taking a class covering the development of modern Germany starting in the 19th century and looking at how Hitler eventually came to power. Each Monday afternoon, I spent three hours listening to Dr. David McElroy lecture in a dry but informative voice on the third floor of ten Hoor Hall. (We shared more than our names. Oddly, Dr. McElroy and I also drove identical cars.)
This science fiction paperback is one I remember staying up all night with about 11 or 12 years ago, constantly telling myself, “Just one more chapter.” I’d been reading the Honor Harrington series, by writer David Weber, for about 10 or 11 books and the long and sweeping story of the brilliant and honorable female military commander in the future was reaching its climax. I hadn’t been divorced for too long at the time, so I was still getting accustomed to living alone. Living in that fictitious universe at that time in my life was an escape from being alone.
This business book by Tom Peters is one that I read when I was about 30, during a year when I was desperately searching for answers about why my business had failed. I had been in business for myself for about five years. I had been moderately successful at one point, but I’d bet everything on starting a community newspaper in an affluent area of Birmingham. We had an excellent product, but we didn’t sell ads very well, so I failed. It was the first serious failure of my life and it hit me very hard. I was badly depressed. I was trying to figure out what had happened — and whether I was even a businessman anyway.
That psychology book down there was one I studied carefully about five years ago when I was trying to understand some ugly things about myself. In the year before that, I had made a decision that had taken my life badly off course. I was miserable and I didn’t understand why I’d done what I’d done. I started therapy and I learned some things about myself that were crushing. I learned things that helped me understand my family. I learned things that helped me understand why I had done some things. I learned things that helped me understand why I had hurt someone. And that cold, rational book was one of my companions for this epic and emotional journey of discovery and change.
I don’t know how many books I have. A thousand or more, I suppose. Some of them are trivial, because I’m a home for books that would otherwise be thrown away. They don’t all have stories behind them. But many of them do. The ones over here were given to me by someone who used to love me. The ones there were part of our family library when I was growing up. There are all sorts of categories — some meaningful, some trivial.
My books aren’t just the information on their pages. Parts of me — what I was and who I was when I read them — live inside them. They’re part of me and I’m part of them.
Scrapbooks tell some people’s stories. My books tell mine.