Home Libraries: “I Cannot Live Without Books”

A corner of my library

I cannot live without books, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his old Revolutionary colleague John Adams. The two were famously well read, and they loved to talk about books with each other and with many of the people they each corresponded with. Adams was always encouraging his sons, from an early age, to read. “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket,” he told his eldest, John Quincy.

In the Civil War community, too, books are a huge part of the culture. For me, they have always been a central part of life. From the comic books I collected as a kid—a collection I still have—to the paperbacks I read as a teenager—a collection I also still have—to the working library I now have as a public historian and writer, I have not been able to live without books any more than Jefferson could.

Before I got remarried in 2014, I warned my lovely bride-to-be, Jennifer, that I came with a library.

“That’s fine,” she replied cheerily. “We can put up a couple extra bookcases.”

By her tone, I could tell she thought it sounded fun to have some extra books around the house. She did not understand the implications of what I’d said, I realized.

“No, no, no. I have A Library.” I tried my best to stress the capital letters and italics as I spoke.

When I showed up with moving van and began to unload cardboard box after cardboard box, one after another like a long procession in Grant’s fabled cracker line, it began to dawn on Jenny what she’d gotten herself into. I smiled. “It’s my library!” It was my turn to sound cheery.

Around that time, Savas Beatie was running a series in their monthly newsletter about the libraries of their authors, and they invited me to participate. I declined, in part because my disassembled library didn’t look all that impressive boxed up. But I also find library discussions to be a bit like—please pardon the expression—“big dick” contests. People who talk about their librarys that way don’t really care about the other person’s library, they just want to show off how big their own is. Fewer things are more annoying than when I do a roundtable talk or book signing, and someone comes up afterwards to strike up a conversation with a phrase like, “My library has 300,000 books in it.” (It happens more often than you might think.) “Put it away, Big John,” I want to say. Instead, I usually just smile and nod and gesture to my table and reply, “I hope you have room for a couple more.”

Who doesn’t love a handsome set of the ORs on their shelves? (So long as you don’t have to lug them around….)

I do understand the impulse, though. People are proud of their libraries, and talking about them with an old friend can be a source of real joy. In fact, the inspiration for this series came up as Dan Welch and I sat in a coffee house in Youngstown, Ohio, one Saturday morning and started talking about our recent book purchases, which led to discussions about our libraries.

I taught myself to read reading The Incredible Hulk comic books. I turned to paperbacks in middle school after my mother’s brother, my Uncle Jamie, introduced me to Dune during a beach vacation one year. Uncle Jamie was a world-class reader with an incredible library at home that always stood as a place of awe for me. The other great reader in the family was my dad’s sister, my Aunt Mary Beth, who read widely and loved fiction in particular.

While I held on to all the books I bought, I never really thought of my book collection as a “library” until the early 90s. That’s when the evolution of my library began, and it unfolded in three major phases.

First, as a graduate student studying English and creative writing, I amassed a fiction collection that consisted of literary novels and so-called “classics.” I had studied communications as an undergrad and so had some catching up to do, so I bought up everything I could on my meager salary. I also had a strong interest in modern Japanese literature, which I still enjoy today, and so bought up volumes on the rare occasions I came across them. The Vintage International series featured several, and they had attractive cover designs and a classy-looking sensibility to them.

In the mid 90s, I got back into theater, which I had also studied as an undergrad. I worked with several community theaters and nonprofit arts groups, and my own creative writing tilted toward playwriting. I began to collect and read plays, so my library grew by several hundred volumes of scripts, particularly once I started work on my M.F.A., which concentrated on playwriting.

Finally, in the early 2000s, my writing career shifted again. I was dabbling in travel writing, nature writing, and history writing. I was reading widely, and my general nonfiction holdings began to expand. I like everything from marine biology to the history of physics to travels in Africa to presidential history and more. I really like the Founders.

The Stonewall Jackson Shrine

And then suddenly my history writing took off. Because Stonewall Jackson has been my entry into the Civil War, I started collecting books about him—totally from a fanboy perspective—but as I got more serious about my Civil War writing, thanks to my writing partner Kris White, I begin to collect Civil War books more seriously. Over time, that portion of my library evolved from general reading into a working research library.

That shift necessitated a change in my own buying habits. I love and appreciate a good new hardcover, but because research books are handled and used and not just admired, I’ve taken to purchasing used copies, which are much cheaper. Like so many of my ECW colleagues—and so many of you, I imagine—I can’t pass up a used bookstore without coming the shelves for a good Civil War discovery. And I’m not so snobbish that I’ll turn my nose up at a paperback, either.

Each McKay’s is a veritable warehouse of used books.

“You have a problem,” Jenny told me the last time I came home with an arm load of 20 books, representing back-to-back stops at McKays in Knoxville and Nashville.

“It’s a research library!” I tried to explain.

“When are you ever going to read those?”

“Most of them are for reference while I’m doing research.”

“When are you ever going to have time to work on that many projects?” (Imagine the tone of voice that goes with a single arched eyebrow.)

Jenny picked a random book off the stack, a pictorial guide to The General and The Texas of Great Locomotive Chase fame. “When are you ever going to work on a project that you’ll use this for?” she asked

“It’s just in case,” I answered. “So many different ECW folks are working on so many different projects, who knows what I might need?” It really did make sense in my head at the time, but as soon as I said it, I knew I had somehow just lost the discussion.

To round things out, I have a couple hundred volumes of poetry and an entire bookshelf of writing about writing. The poetry is mostly a holdover from my more literary days in the MFA program, although I still enjoy reading it. The writing books—well, I teach writing and like to read about the craft. I also used to teach an interdisciplinary class on zombies in pop culture, so there’s a shelf of books about zombies (the zombie apocalypse is just a matter of “when,” not “if”—just sayin’). I have books about media and P.R., again dovetailing from the classes I teach.

At this point in the story, I suppose it would be appropriate to whip out the size of my library and brag about it. But I don’t really know how many books I have. The last time I counted them up, years ago, I was pushing 5,000, but I’ve not counted them since. There are enough of them that I have three rooms in my house that each have multiple bookcases. My office is filled with enough bookcases that they literally form a small maze to my desk. The apartment above our garage doubles as my Civil War library, which takes up most of the living space there.

I am surrounded by books. I take great comfort in having them all around me. They reflect and embody my eclectic mind, and they remind me of the writer I aspire to be.

I cannot live without books.

16 Responses to Home Libraries: “I Cannot Live Without Books”

  1. Your smarts, charm, and always interesting interviews and tours, now have an explanation. You are not just well-read, but your broad and varied interests are most impressive! Thanks for being willing to share now. And I like that your view of your diverse library of books is not laid out in a “big dick contest” sort of way. 🙂

  2. Chris: Does your zombie book collection include The Living Dead, the recent posthumously-published novel by George Romero, the Founding Father of zombie fiction? 🙂

    1. I haven’t had time to get it yet, actually. One of the things I liked about Romero is that he kept reinventing zombies each time he made a movie. He would tweak their evolution a bit or change the rules a little. He kept pushing his own genre.

  3. Looking at the above picture of vast McKay’s holdings, one thing came to mind: the fatal flaw of libraries… destruction by fire or flood. We are all familiar with the incalculable loss of the holdings at the Library of Alexandria in 48 B.C. But there have been more recent fires: the 1973 Personnel Records Center Fire in St. Louis (through which most U.S. Army records from World War One were lost.) Lesser known was the fire at the University of Iowa Library of 1897, sparked by a lightning strike. 25000 books and pamphlets were destroyed, including most of the material Librarian Joseph Rich had spent 35 years collecting. Veteran of the Battle of Shiloh, Joseph Rich collected every memoir and document relating to Shiloh he could get his hands on… only to see his life’s work disappear in smoke and flame.
    The Lesson: make copies of your most valued photographs and written records, and have trusted friends and family hold onto them for you, just in case.

  4. This was a wonderful read. I feel much better about my own compulsive book buying now. I’m well disciplined compared to you. ?

  5. I look at my book collection as a labor of love. Especially because I’m working on a massive chronological project that I hope to turn into a book. I think what makes the importance of owning American history books, or any true scholarly written works, is not the fact of reading them for leisure, rather the immense wealth of knowledge at your fingertips for research. I may never read all the books on my shelves, but almost all of them will be used for research purposes. And that’s a luxury in this COVID world that is invaluable.

  6. If you have “Encyclopedia of the Zombie,” I must share that co-author June Pulliam, a friend of a friend, once whacked me with a rolled-up newspaper because I admitted I hadn’t read “Gone With the Wind.”


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