My parents always told me I learned to read at the age of 4. My dad also told me: “You had books since you were a toddler. I used to read you bedtime stories every night. You had the basic children books that taught you shapes, colors, letters. You always loved books and looking at them even if you didn’t know the words yet.” I was hooked!
Growing up, I remember many weekends where my mom scolded me for reading too much and not spending enough time outside, though I’d say it was completely balanced. Books littered my bedroom floor as much as my clothes and toys. The Scholastic Book Fairs at my elementary school we’re like being in heaven times two, because there’s nothing more exciting than being in your school’s library surrounded by books and then surrounded by all of these new books that you can buy. I was also lucky because my parents bought me a subscription to the Animorphs fan club. I still own all of the books. And if you’re from Pittsburgh, you may remember the Whitehall Shopping Center on Brownsville Road. My dad would always take me to this big book shop there and buy me Girl Talk books.
I’ll never forget the Christmas where my dad gave me Harry Potter books two, three, and four. They are still one of my most prized possessions.
In 8th grade, I remember scrounging up loose change I found around my house to buy a book or two from the Scholastic book orders at school. I was always ashamed handing my language arts teacher an envelope filled with dimes and quarters, but she always accepted it with a smile. She understood me. Upon my graduation, I won awards for reading the most books in my grade and in the whole school during the past year. And I know I only read that much because my language arts teacher had the best in-class library and I didn’t mind doing the reports and activities that counted the books towards our reading goal. I probably read all of my teacher’s books, specifically Lois Duncan and Caroline B. Cooney.
I was really shy as a pre-teen. Anytime I went anywhere, I always had a book with me, in case I needed to escape an awkward situation. I still carry books with me wherever I go!
In high school, I took honors and AP English and I always wondered what books I was missing out on in the regular English classes. That’s how much of a book nerd I was: I still wanted more to read. I spent most of my free time at my neighborhood library, searching for books about girls like me. I wish I could remember all of the books I read during that time, but the ones that I liked the most, I was able to get my parents to buy for me as presents. I admire my Dad’s patience with me because I easily spent hours browsing the YA section of Borders.
I decided to major in English at college because I didn’t know anything else, other than my passion for books and literature. I had dreams that I would just study all of the great authors of the world and build up my library more and more. Little did I know, there would be more theory and analysis of literature than there was actually enjoying it. I became a bigger fan of Shakespeare and I was introduced to Jane Austen and Sylvia Plath. I knew that I had spent too much of my youth reading fiction for young readers like me, and not reading enough of the classic literature that my peers grew up on. But, I still continued to enjoy and devour books as much as I could during my down time. And every year, I would move huge boxes of books into my dorm, even with my Dad’s grumbles about how heavy they were.
I started an Excel spreadsheet to start cataloging my books and I try to update it at least annually. However, I missed a few years and decided to spend Thursday evening bringing the Excel sheet up to speed. And this brings me to a story that I need to share. (Yes, a separate story from my book love affair story, but supportive to my book obsession)
When I was about to graduate from college, during senior week before graduation, I took a day to myself to walk around town. I stumbled upon a used book sale, because that’s what I do. As I stood running my fingers over all of the books, taking in that old book smell, just looking at the cracked spines, crinkled covers, and bent pages…I wanted to cry and I’m honestly kind of tearing up thinking about it now.
I don’t even remember what books I bought that day, but I know I bought mostly classic literature. Because when I checked out, the gentleman at the till asked me about myself, because of all of the books. I explained that I was a senior English major at the college and I was in love with classic literature and I was trying to make sure I had a good collection of books for when I got home and started job hunting. Then he explained that he and his wife had both gone to Westminster. She had been an English major too and they both had also taught at the college (if I remember correctly). They still lived in the area, but his wife’s health was declining and she was looking to donate her old textbooks to someone who would appreciate them. And they chose me.
A few days later, the husband picked me up from my dorm (because I didn’t have a car) and took me to their house. I sat and talked with the couple (Matt and Jean) for hours, just listening about their family and history and connections with Westminster. Jean’s father, James, had taught physics at Westminster College for 36 years and New Wilmington was home. Matt and Jean, who both graduated from Wilmington High and Westminster, were married in 1952. Jean also earned her masters in literature from the University of Pennsylvania in 1951. They left the area for about 40 years, but returned to live in Wilmington Township in 1990. They had 4 children. I was surprised that they travelled all over the world, but still came back to New Wilmington (I understand now because that’s where they grew up)!
They were the most lovely people. I remember Jean being so kind and not wanting to pressure me into taking all of the books that were stacked on their dining room table. She said to me, “Ashley, only take what you want. Don’t feel pressured to take them all. Be honest.” Then they gave me some privacy while I looked over the worn hardbound books. Before that day I don’t think I’d ever touched a book that wasn’t printed in my lifetime and these books, you could tell they had history. They were just so beautiful and I was tearing up; I told Jean that I wanted all of them. I cried and hugged her and I thanked her for the wonderful gift that I could never repay her for. I packed up her college textbooks into a few boxes and then took them back to my dorm. (And of course, my Dad probably questioned my sanity as to why I needed more books, let alone old ones)
I kept in touch with the couple for about a year or so after I graduated to make sure they knew that I was still appreciative of them and their gift. I know I did not keep in better contact; I was a young fool who still had a lot of growing up to do. I never realized how amazing their gift was until I was actually about to enter grad school. See, I kept all of these precious books in a plastic bin for safekeeping, but one day in my apartment, I decided to take them all out and look at them further. Most of the books range from the early to mid-1900s. I have beautiful copies of Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, and other novels, as well as college textbooks with notes and exams stuffed into them – thanks to Jean and Matt.
I never really talked about this experience until recently. Since that first time I took out the books, I made sure to look at these books about once a year, but otherwise keep them stored and safe from damage until I can properly display them. I always cry when I remember their kindness. After much reflection last night, after updating my Excel sheet and Goodreads account, I did some Google searching and learned that Jean passed away 2 years ago. I was devastated to know that I couldn’t express my gratitude to her again.
My love goes out to Matt and Jean Hosie (Westminster ’46 and ’50, respectively).
Back to it! In grad school, I was the nerd who bought about a dozen other books to supplement my textbooks and lectures. And I actually read them and used them for my research. My love for books was moving online and joining up with other book lovers. I joined online book clubs; I discovered Goodreads and started writing book reviews; I started documenting my book photos on Instagram; and I joined the YA book subscription box, Owlcrate. And now, I’m even recording book review YouTube videos! I started calling myself a bibliophile (my disease had a name!).
noun: bibliophile; plural noun: bibliophiles
a person who collects or has a great love of books.
On trips and vacations, bookstores and library sales were always places that I stumbled upon. And of course, I always left with a big stack of books to take home. Used book sales are one of my favorite things. I love running my fingers over the spines of hundreds of books, seeing books that people left behind, and taking home a hefty stack for only five dollars. I have tried to restrain myself from buying books (the dreaded book buying ban), but it doesn’t work.
Books come to me and I know it’s for a reason. It’s hard to explain, unless you have felt it too. The magic of words on papers, of stories of far off places and ones close to home. It’s how I easily spent about 10 hours on Thursday, double checking all 550 books I own against a spreadsheet, but also reliving the moments they came into my life and the lessons I’ve learned. Books have always been there for me, through everything in my life. Nothing gives me more comfort than being surrounded by books.
Thanks for reading!
Do you consider yourself to be a bibliophile? When did you book obsession begin?