GROWING UP my parents didn’t have much, but what they did have—no matter where we lived—was a library.

Hand-me-down furniture, pots, pans, cutlery, and other kitchen miscellany found on our neighbours’ stoops would come and go—discarded as easily as they were discovered—every time we moved. And we moved often.

But as wobbly chairs and half-functioning toasters were left behind on the street—perhaps for some other hapless family to obtain—we would lovingly pack milk crates filled with books into the bed of my father’s old, blue, rusted-out Toyota pickup, like literature-filled mega-blocks or a real-life game of literary Tetris. The library was never left behind.

No wonder I started to view books as precious items. Pieces of magic, worthy of burden. To be carried from place to place, honoured above all other earthly possessions. Here they were, hardcover classics: The Catcher in the RyeMoby-DickLittle WomenThe Great Gatsby, and every Mark Twain book you can imagine. The Complete Works of Shakespeare (that one usually got its own milkcrate), The Bluest EyeDon Quixote, and Things Fall Apart. At least one copy of every book by James Joyce—my father’s favourite—but then on to Austen, Brontë (take your pick), Tolstoy, Tolkien, Dostoevsky, Plath, Kesey, Kerouac, and a rather beautiful edition of Invisible Man. And that barely scratches the surface. Big, important, majestic hardcover books, moved from shitty apartment to shitty apartment, like royalty carried about town in a golden litter, albeit one with wheels and a gas tank my parents could only afford to fill a quarter-of-a-tank at a time. In one apartment, my father went so far as to build the books a throne, meticulously crafting shelves from wood, which he laid into the very walls of the building (a home improvement that would later cost us our security deposit). My parents didn’t care. It was worth it. They had spent their entire lives collecting these books. What was money, something they never had much of anyway, versus a gleaming display for their life’s work—collected and curated and painstakingly maintained?

Years later, when eBooks first appeared and “the end of print” was erroneously declared—visions of Kindle kiosks replacing beloved bookstores dancing in the heads of publishing executives and bean counters alike—I rested easy, remembering my parents’ library. Would they have traded in their gorgeous assemblage of classics for some beige, boring desktop computer? Not on your life. They valued books as bastions of knowledge and imagination, sure, but also, books as a point of pride, their spines on display as a way of saying, “Here. Have you read this? I have.” Or, almost certainly more importantly, “Here. Have you read this? This is me.” Book covers held out on public transportation, significantly, as if they were calling cards. “Does this interest you? It interests me. Do I interest you? I hope so.”

To put it even more simplistically, books as fetish objects, to be collected and put on a pedestal like so many Pokémon.

“Here. Have you read this? This is me.”

My parents instilled their all-consuming love of literature in me. Eventually, book by book, I too grew up and became a poor adult. Just as they had been.

Only I never had a library. My parents’ tendency to move from apartment to apartment in the city we lived in (Boston) and eventually the state (Massachusetts) was also instilled in me, except I used the entire country to try and assuage my itchy feet. Washington D.C. Philadelphia. San Francisco. New York City. Usually making the move with nothing more than a bag over my shoulder, as I lacked even a rusted out old truck or any vehicle to speak of—no way of carrying a wealth of written knowledge by mostly dead people from place to place. But my obsession with moving, my obsession with impermanence, led to another obsession:

The paperback.

Credit where credit’s due, my father introduced me to paperbacks early in life. There were children’s books, of course, and a used, beat-up copy of The Hobbit my father read to me when I was young, but it was the Collected Works of Breece D’J Pancake—one of the first “adult” books he gave me, probably around the age of ten or eleven, that really made me fall in love with paperbacks. “Here, I think you’d like this,” he said. And he was right.

I would carry the book around with me, reading it while I waited for the school bus or in the back of math class, hiding it under my desk. Here was a book filled with stories that reminded me of my own life, that I could take with me anywhere. Nothing fantastical, or heavy, or overly important about it. Simply a book that I could grip in the palm of my adolescent hand, fingers tearing at the cover absentmindedly as I was enveloped in Breece’s stories.

I tend to be hard on my things. I still am. When I read a paperback book, it’s like I’m wrestling with it. Soon the cover is torn and the pages are dog-eared and there’s a giant seam down the middle where I folded the book in half so I can stuff it into my back pocket, or jacket pocket, or perhaps a friend’s mailbox, if I think they might like the book as much as I have.

Hardcover books are like anchors. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal. This is an important book. You should sit in a big, overstuffed chair and read it under a bright lamp, preferably by some roaring hearth, mayhap with a pipe and smoking jacket.

But a paperback is built for adventure. Paperbacks are light, and—as already mentioned numerous times in this essay—foldable. If you forget one at the bar or by the swimming hole, you will not mourn, for the book will be found by somebody else, and if you haven’t finished it before you lose it, don’t worry—you can buy a new one for the price of a drink or two, not an entire meal.

This is why you find paperbacks in hostels and traveler’s hotels. Take a book, leave a book. Sometimes they’re covered in writing (because nobody thinks twice about writing in a paperback), the stranger’s thoughts there to guide you, or infuriate you, or confound you on the off-chance they have poor penmanship.

Or perhaps it’s not a stranger. Perhaps it’s relative. A friend. Your mother or father. A treasure trove of thoughts from a dead loved one, who you never thought you’d hear from again.

I wish I could tell you now that I have a library of stained and tattered paperbacks to match my parents’ formidable hardcovers, but that would be a lie. Because I barely have a library at all—although, I must admit, as I grow older, I’m beginning to grow the slightest bit of moss, my parents’ habits slowly becoming my own. Still I fight against the urge, because when I finish a book I love—and the truth is I love most of them—I give it away. To a friend. To a colleague. Sometimes to a stranger (or at least I like to think so when I lose them, as I so often do). For me, books are meant to be shared. Circulated. You don’t own a paperback; you have it for a little while and then it moves on with its life. The best you can do is help it find a good home.

But like I said, I’m beginning to pick up my parents’ habits, as most children eventually do. No matter how strongly I tried to fight against them in my younger years—both the good and the bad. Friends over the years have given me first editions of beloved books, items that demand to be respected. Treated properly. Well-bred horses that deserve a hay-laden paddock, not wild horses on open plains with wind in their manes. I now have a first edition of that paperback my father gave me all those years ago, The Collected Works of Breece D’J Pancake. So I keep it displayed ceremoniously next to a few potted plants. I like that it reminds me to think of the person who gave it to me. I like that it feels important. An anchor on my own terms.

So sure, I’m accumulating a library now that I am fully an adult. But let’s be honest: I picked this particular habit up from my parents long before I’m willing to admit. Not the library, per se. But I see now how they treated hardcover books as fetish objects, and that I have simply done the same with paperbacks. One to be kept, one to be shared. Two sides of the same coin. One distinguished and shining. The other dirty and banged up. One heads, one tails. But the truth is, a coin is a coin. Each one has value.

So if you see me at the bar finishing a book, or closing the cover by a river somewhere, or perhaps on a rocky beach on the Atlantic, ask me if I’m finished, and paperback or not, I’ll almost certainly hand it to you. I don’t want to carry it home. I’ll quote my father without even realising it.

“Here. Have you read this? I think you might like it.”

This story originally appeared on Esquire US.


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