Books at All Costs

Kristin Kelly - Gainesville, Georgia
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, July 8, 2011
Kristin Kelly

Kristin Kelly fell in love with books as a child, reading used copies of classic literature her father kept in the family’s basement. Now a college English professor, Kelly believes no price is too expensive when it comes to purchasing a beloved book.

Age Group: 30 - 50
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I believe in buying books you can’t really afford. I’m not advocating fiscal irresponsibility, but if you’re going to make a big purchase, why not make it a book? Good books age with you; they bend and flex with your life experiences. This books-at-all-costs buying philosophy may explain why I still have a console television from the 1970s complete with simulated wood grain. But I’m happy. I have my books.

When I was twenty-three years old, I left a secure high school teaching job to go to graduate school — again. In one of my first classes, I studied the poetry and prose of T.S. Eliot, that master of arcane vocabulary. I despaired when my high school Webster’s Dictionary turned mute each time I tried to look up “estaminet” or “juvescence.” I needed a new book: the Oxford English Dictionary. Its retail price in those days was $300.

Under cover of a blue-cold autumn night, my husband and I set out for the bookstore in Atlanta. I breathlessly asked the clerk for my book (it was kept behind the counter), paid quickly so that I would have no time to reconsider the madness of my purchase, and rushed back to our truck, carrying the great weight of my Oxford English Dictionary. Under the streetlights, I opened the gold-stamped, navy blue tome and squinted at the tiny print. Now I could know all of T.S. Eliot’s vocabulary. Now I could die happy, holding all these heavy words in my arms.

Don’t get me wrong: I never turn down a trip to the library, but I know that there is something mysterious and spiritual in owning your own good books, in spending your earthly money for a piece of heavenly art to pass down to future generations to say: This is what I loved. And I wonder if you will love, it too?

I have been the recipient of many of these passed-down books. My father was a book buyer. He never made the extravagant purchases I did, but I remember his going to the Aspen Used Book Store on Memorial Drive in Atlanta on the weekends. He would take hundreds of battered paperbacks and trade them for magnificent, neglected sets of classics. Daddy would go in with how-to books about fixing plumbing leaks and come out with dusty, gilt-edged editions of The Iliad and The Odyssey. He would neatly arrange these books in our basement where I, at nine or ten years of age, would spend all summer in the cool, damp air spinning around and around in a cast-off, black vinyl office chair reading Greek and Roman myths.

One day, I’ll have to leave my library, but I’m pleased to know that my children will have all my books about Southern literature and modern poetry. They might say, “Look, Mama sure loved Flannery O’Connor,” or “I wonder why she had three copies of Eliot’s Collected Poems?”

I think we can die happily if we live happily amongst our books. And I’m counting on heaven having a well-stocked library.

Kristin G. Kelly is an English professor at Gainesville State College in Gainesville, Georgia, where the school sponsors This I Believe celebrations every fall and spring in which composition students volunteer to read their personal philosophies. Kelly thanks her father for amassing an impressive basement library that allowed for unlimited and indiscriminate reading. She lives on a hill in northeast Georgia with her husband, son, daughter, and a hefty orange tomcat.