RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Books’ magnetism draws readers into the tether of words

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

In a fairground exhibit hall as big as Rhode Island, the library is selling its castoffs, enough books to educate a small nation. Or Rhode Island.
The place is packed with folks who don’t know or care that a contraption named Kindle rules, who prefer to touch books and turn their pages and occasionally stack some thick ones beneath the bottom of a child too short to reach the table.
Men and women and a few children, gratifyingly enough, are walking around with boxes filled with books, the kind you can dog-ear and press flowers with and put on a shelf to admire and read again.
A bagpiper plays from a stage, and I keep hoping it is not a dirge. Aren’t there enough of us hefting boxes piled with mysteries and thick, pretty art books and novels we read back in college to give hope that books aren’t buggy whips?
My home is built around my books. I paid a carpenter recently to close in a deck to make a room with more shelves. I had filled all my others.
And I cannot stop buying books, though sometimes I chide myself for spending far too much money on words. But how can I resist when there’s a new one with a tea-stained-colored cover called “Hemingway’s Boat, Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost”? It tells us about the writer in Cuba and on his boat The Pilar, a context as brilliant and vast as the sea.
And my husband recently gave me the letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, “As Always, Julia,” and how could you not want to display properly that lovely cover with a beaming Julia wearing pearls in her French kitchen?
And then my friends keep writing books, which makes it necessary to place signed copies on a special, prominent shelf. Leslie Criss compiled her columns, and Jimmy Johnson his cartoons. Jerry Brown scored a book blurb by Harper Lee on his deftly told grandfather’s story, and a group of Auburn women gathered the best of their short stories and poems and named the book “Be the Flame” and themselves the Mystics.
Some shelves are sentimental journeys, with groupings of books by friends dead and gone, inspiring writers like Celestine Sibley, a woman never too busy writing four columns a week to churn out a book every now and again. Kathryn Wyndham’s work is on that shelf as well, and books by that tough, take-no-prisoners gal Molly Ivins.
If you are reading these words in a newspaper, I am preaching to the choir. I don’t have to tell you how it feels to be part of a vanishing breed, a sucker for tangible words. You know.
I fill my box slowly, not wanting to leave a swell scene some would describe as a vanishing act. I peruse the travel books and find one about Italy for friends about to go there. I find a small book on Natchez I know my mother will love.
I move past tables and tables of mysteries – why, oh why, don’t I write those? – and linger too long in the crafts aisle looking for knitting books for my knitting friend Anita. And that routes me to photography, where I get a real workout pulling Ansel Adams and Karsh from the bottom of tall stacks.
The price for a big box of books is $26, less than I’ll spend for supper. I’ll have the books forever, but tomorrow won’t remember what I ate.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.