Volumes Have Secrets


No matter where I am in the world, I feel immediately at home in a library. Oriented in space by the catalog system and the temple-like, almost ritual regularity of checkout desk, reference section, fiction and nonfiction. I also feel oriented in Time — through the mathematical chronology of the history section, and in terms of the linear development of human thought through the eras of literature and poetry contained in the vast, sprawling fiction section, ordered only by the author’s last name and the alphabet.

But more than that, the library also orients me immediately in the timeline of my own life. I remember when I first read a book — what age I was, what I thought, how I saw the world, and how I felt. The history of old discoveries, of my development, is contained in its walls, but only I hold the key. The map, the thread of this path through the words contained in those books, exists only in my memory and is entirely personal. It is the chronicle of my growth into the person I have become.

Each reader is their own patchwork quilt of memories and stories, and each accumulation is unique. So much depends upon the age at which we encounter a particular book. What came before it — in terms of books, but also in terms of the experiences of our lives. But the past is also altered by the books and experiences that came after. Nothing is fixed in Time. The future can and does alter the past.

Our personal pasts can be chopped into distinct phases of chronology, just as an archaeologist sections a slope of soil. But they can also be chronicled developmentally. The developmental chronicle is never complete, because each moment — each new experience or book — changes it. Each impact ripples out to earlier and earlier stages, changing things to a depth dependent only upon its weight, its specific density in terms of personal importance.

The fundamental question is whether or not we can ever accurately picture the chronological past. Can we truly separate out what we know now, and remember what we thought and how we saw the world at a given moment?

One way in to these slices of a life is through someone’s writing. The writing of a particular time period provides a glimpse into that person’s past — a version of that person from a distinct slice of time — a character-ological cross section that is gone forever with every passing moment. In that sense, we are each our own repositories of knowledge.

A ‘self’ is nothing more than a collection of memories — a living library.

Photo: The author at Alexandria Library, Egypt by Jason George

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • Nice post, Ryan!
    It resonated with me because there have been books that all of my friends recommended as a good read, but that I simply could not get past the first page or chapter. Years would past and suddenly what was once unreadable would be so spellbinding as to rend me unable to stop until the last word on the last page.
    Likewise, books I read cover to cover with ease one day no longer fit with who I have become. They are still part of my past, but I can no longer relate to the person I was then.
    Well done!

  • Yes, lovely post – you write so well. And I can relate to Kathryn’s comment too. It would explain why you can know about a book or author, buy them even, but then leave them unread on a shelf for years until the time is right.
    I wonder whether a fascination with the question of time and the self is a facet of a comfortable kind of introversion, in the same way that travel can be a kind of introversion even while you are, physically, going out into the world. But maybe you have a completely different take on that.

  • Thanks Deborah – much appreciated coming from you 🙂
    “I wonder whether a fascination with the question of time and the self is a facet of a comfortable kind of introversion, in the same way that travel can be a kind of introversion even while you are, physically, going out into the world. But maybe you have a completely different take on that.”
    That’s a brilliant and insightful observation. I’ve always felt that about travel – it involves forced extroversion in the sense that you’re stuck alone in a strange place where you have to step up and fend for yourself. But it’s also intensely introverted – because you’re not only cast adrift from your normal, comfortable routine, you’re also entirely cut off from your social role, your comfortable place in the social sphere. So while you are ‘out there’, you’re moving in an intensely introverted bubble. That isolation among crowds of strangers causes you to turn inwards like nothing else.
    But I’d never thought about introversion being related to a fascination with time, memory and self. Would you say that accurately describes yourself?
    I’ve gotta ponder that some more. You’re definitely onto something.

  • I love it Ryan. You’ve invoked many fond memories, some of which I included in an article I wrote. As you requested, here it is:
    “As far back as I can remember I have had a love affair with books and reading. This was instilled in me by my mother who was an English Lit major in college and had her own affair with reading, preferably all things English. I’d have to ask her to confirm this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she started reading to my sister and I in the womb. Books were a mainstay gift for Christmas and Birthdays. And, they were cherished.
    To be read to was a great treat, even when I could easily read for myself. I remember getting a concussion in the fourth grade and the doctor telling my mom to check on me every hour throughout the night. As she read me to sleep that night I remember thinking I was going to be awoken and be read a chapter every hour. I will never forget the disappointment when I awoke in the morning to find that she had only checked on me and let me continue sleeping. I felt so cheated!
    Not long ago I attended a seminar at which we were asked to write down family sayings and mottos that came to mind. What things have parents, grandparents, etc. said that still ring in your head and that you carry with you in life? The first thing that popped into my head was my mother saying “Books are our friends!” I almost laughed out loud. No sage advice about finances or relationships or the deeper questions of life. No catchy little witticisms unique to our family, simply “Books are our friends.”
    I remember that one of my earliest goals in life was set at age four. I discovered that in order to get my very own library card I had to be able to print my name. That skill was quickly mastered so I could proudly walk into any library with my very own card! In fact, I still have that worn, dog-eared little card somewhere in some box of cherished childhood mementos. I don’t think I ever had it in me to throw away a library card, even an expired one! This may have actually ranked up there above getting my first driver’s license, although I was the first in line at the DMV at 8:00 AM on my sixteenth birthday. Okay, maybe that one is a tie.
    One of my favorite stories about myself as a child occurred when I was in the first grade. Our little school library was opened to the various grades one day a week. Library Day was always greatly anticipated and I remember often wearing my favorite dress in honor of it. (Yes, a book nerd at a very early age!) One week the unthinkable occurred. It was Library Day for the first graders and I didn’t have my library card with me! It was totally unacceptable to think that I would not be able to get a new book for the week. I had to think quickly to avert this crisis! Library Day. No library card. But determination. Strong desire for new books. And, a carton of milk! Perfect! A quick spilling of the milk down my dress resulted in the calculated call to my mother who came to get me and take me home to change clothes.
    On the way home, conscience got the best of me and I started to cry. My mother was so comforting, thinking that I was distressed over the spilt milk on one of my favorite dresses. When I confessed that I had actually spilled the milk on purpose because I desperately needed to get home to get the forgotten library card, she laughed and hugged me! She was so proud! At the time I’m sure I was a little stunned at that behavior, but now I cherish it as affirmation of the encouragement my mother always had for our learning. Later she told of a friend of hers about the incident who had said I should have been punished or grounded for that behavior. My mother had replied “Why on earth would I ever punish my child for wanting to read?” Of course, she did explain that next time a simple phone call home would suffice and she would bring the forgotten library card to me.
    I’ve carried that love of books in my heart my entire life. For years I have given favorite children’s books at baby showers encouraging young mothers to read to their children. No redundant baby booties or onesies from me. The children in my life have received seasonal classics in Easter Baskets, at Halloween and at Christmas instead of candy or toys. Hopefully I’ve been able to instill in them that books are more than pieces of paper with ink, held together in bindings. They are so very much more. After all, books truly are our friends.”

  • Simply beautiful. Thanks very much for sharing this. It was a wonderful change from the usual tiresome tributes to backlighted screens and search engines we hear so often these days.4


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