Old Friends

Article & photo by Virginia Parker Staat

“I love everything that’s old – old friends, old times,
old manners, old books, old wine.“
~ Oliver Goldsmith

It’s done… finished… finito. Last week we completed the library we have been building for over two years. The project was enormous. We knocked out a wall between the study and a poorly used storage closet. David was the carpenter, and I was the finisher. We had no design or plans, only an inspiration photo of a library alcove that I found in a magazine some fifteen years ago.

Now I’m unpacking 47 boxes of books. Each is filled with old and cherished friends. It felt like Christmas when I opened the box with childhood favorites like Beautiful Joe and Island of the Blue Dolphins. In the middle of my unpacking, I found our Christmas collection with treasures including A Christmas Carol and The Littlest Angel. I have carefully sorted literally hundreds of children’s books, each a tribute to my first writing love. I’ve also rediscovered more fairy tale and mythology books than I can count… a collection from a once-dreamt-of master’s degree. And, of course, five shelves are now chocker-block filled with writing reference books.

new library
The Staat’s new library

Amazingly, my increase from 21 to 32 shelves still cannot hold all the books I have collected over a lifetime. We have donated at least five boxfuls to our local library. I winced as I let each book go… even those that no longer fit with who I have become. In the words of Ernest Hemingway, “There is no friend as loyal as a book.”

Obviously I am a true bibliophile. I love to fondle books. I love how pages yellow and spines break with age. I love the way books smell. I love the faint, crinkly sound of pages turning. I love the taste of their beautiful words. Mostly I love how my books have molded and changed me over a lifetime of reading.

These books have also changed me as a writer. I find that reading is an indispensable part of my craft. As Roy Peter Clark says, writer’s read for both form and content to stretch our interest and challenge our standards. In Writing Tools, Clark writes, “That’s how smart writers continue to learn, by reading work they admire again and again to ‘see how it works.’”

Writers read to analyze how other writers deal with structure, point of view, and voice. I go to my fairy tale collection to examine structure. I turn to F. Scott Fitzgerald for point of view and Eudora Welty for voice. If I want to add a spark of lyricism to my writing, I head straight to the shelf with Baylor’s Hawk, I’m your Brother and Bunting’s The Man Who Could Call Down Owls. I read stories by Clarissa Pinkola Estes to remind me how to show rather than tell. For down-to-earth wit, I read Erma Bombeck. For beautiful words in outdoor writing, I turn to Matthiessen and Thoreau. For writing inspiration, I always begin with Ann Lamott, Madeline L’Engle, or Katherine Paterson.

The best part about finishing the library is now I know exactly where each book resides. My old friends seem happy in their new home… and so am I.