Off the Shelf

“What are you going to do with that?” I was surprised to hear the accusation in my voice as Craig pulled the book off the shelf.

“I was telling a friend about Anne Lamott today at work,” he replied, “and I want to loan her our copy of Traveling Mercies.”

“But that’s my copy.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“You want to loan her my copy of Traveling Mercies?”

“Yeah. Is there a problem?”

In fact, there was a big problem. Traveling Mercies belonged on the bookshelf, where I could see it, touch it, maybe even pull it out and read it. When I first read it in early 2000, I fell in love with this smart, funny, slightly neurotic woman with an unexpected and unapologetic love for Jesus. She brought lightness and grace to my faith, along with a freedom to not vote Republican. Her presence on the bookshelf was an emblem of discovery, and now Craig was ready to send her away.

We have 125 linear feet of bookshelves in our house (yes, we measured), all packed with books. Stacked up, the books would reach as high as a 10-story building. At least two-thirds of them are Craig’s. That’s 80 feet of art history, art technique, biographies, faith exploration and leadership principles. Couldn’t he find something of his own to loan his artist friend?

I didn’t know how to tell Craig what I was feeling. It sounded silly even to me, and I knew he wouldn’t understand. He takes a rather populist approach to our books. He pours himself into whatever he’s reading – with a pencil in hand and Post-it Notes beside him, he underlines, stars, notates, rereads, digests, even reads a passage to me if I’m so inclined – but once he’s finished, he happily lends it out, no matter how dog-eared, no matter if he sees it again. If he finds value from reading John Ruskin, Dr. Gerald May or Philip Yancey, he’s sure you will too.

I, on the other hand, approach my books with the reverence of a priest. I remove the dust jacket of a hardcover volume to keep it from being torn. The only writing on the pages is my name in the corner of the title page. I sit and read for hours. When I finish a book, I slide it back into the jacket and into its opening on the shelf. I imagine the author wants to become my best friend as much as she has already become mine. I want to see the book on the shelf, to feel the author’s presence in my life.

When I connect with a book, I connect with the author. I hold on. When Craig connects with a book, he uses it to connect with others. He lets go. And hopes someone is there to grab it. But I wasn’t ready to release Anne just yet.

“It’s such a powerful book,” I finally responded. “Why don’t we buy your friend her own copy?”


  1. It is so generous to pass on the gift of words. While perhaps no consulation, he continues to lend out a book I lent him as well :)

  2. I understand how you feel about books. We used to lend out books and even had a system but only about 50% of them came back. I hate to feel ungenerous, but Craig should tell her to get Traveling Mercies at the library.

  3. Joyce Burner says:

    Perfect little piece, Lee. ;^) I need to own my books, too, which is counter-intuitive for a librarian, and it seems I raised two daughters with similar tendencies. And Anne Lamott changed my life, and then kept me sane for a number of years.

    • How would I get by without the library? I wouldn’t have added many of the books to my own shelves without first checking them out from the library’s. I picked up two promising titles over my lunch hour today.

    • Joyce, you once taught me that all the books I so wanted returned to the children’s library I worked in were really God’s books and He knew what he was doing with them. Even if they were never read or returned. Your assurances to me were my only consolation in dealing with the many, many, many books that I never saw again. I had to let them go.

  4. i love this post.
    (and ps, like father like son…)

  5. Cindy Meyer says:

    Great solution, Lee!! I’m always for buying other people their own copy of books that I love. It’s good to know that I’m not alone.

    • I have found, however, that others don’t always love them as much as I do … if they even read them.