Books Are Not Palindromes by Erica Shipow

On my 25th birthday, I decided to start keeping track of the books I was reading. I selected a notebook, grabbed a Sharpie, created lines on the blank pages to create columns for title, author, date finished, and category (children, young adult, adult; fiction or nonfiction), and began my list.  The goal wasn’t so much to see how many books I could read, or to note books that I had particularly loved. Rather, I just felt that I was reading a lot, and I wanted to capture that in some way, to document it both in the present and for the future.

Although I had read many books up until that point, I knew that trying to go back and remember them all would be impossible. A few of those titles stick out so clearly in my mind and others spark a memory or two when I pass them on the shelves of a bookstore or in my library, but most of them will remain nameless, stuck in the past along with former versions of my reading self. While I was okay with the idea of my first quarter century of reading remaining a mystery, I didn’t want the trend to continue. So, in July of 2011, I started with book number one and kept going from there.

A year later, as I neared the one-year anniversary of my book-cataloging endeavor, I grew increasingly curious as to what my yearlong total would be. 365? Too ambitious. 100? A little more manageable, and a nice, round number. As the milestone approached, though, my list kept growing, until suddenly I arrived at my magic number: 151.

151. A palindrome. This, although numerically relevant more so than alphabetically, seemed significant. I’ve always enjoyed palindromes, whether in number, word, or phrase form. I love how they are both highly structured and highly playful at the same time; yes, they must read the same backward and forward, but the challenge of filling the spaces in between just seems so…delicious.

Thinking about how much I love palindromes got me thinking that possibly one of the reasons I love books so much (enough to read 151 of them in a year) is precisely because books are not, and never can be, palindromes. Now, this is true in the obvious sense: read a book from finish to start, and it is not the same. At best, you end up hopelessly confused. At worst, you ruin the entire ending and trample the trust placed in you by the author to join him or her on a particular journey. In a more metaphorical sense, though, books are not the same once they have been read; or, more specifically, I am not the same once I have read a book.

When I finish a book, there is no going back and “unreading” it. Parts of it will stick with me, some consciously, some unknowingly; some permanently, others only for a few days or weeks. A character’s voice will ring in my ears, a particular course of fictional action will creep into my contemplation of a personal decision or dilemma, a new fact will lodge itself in my memory, a certain word or phrase will roll around in my head or sneak its way into my vernacular. If I return to the book months or years later, it will be a completely different reading experience, regardless of how well I remember the original reading. And I love that.

Looking back over my list, I am reminded not only of particular titles and periods of reading (especially as they coincide with certain classes, book group meetings, awards seasons, etc.), but also of just how much I love books in general. I love that books change as I read them and that, more importantly, I change as I read them; that I can look back with a slightly different perspective than I had when looking forward. Although I pretend to respect other people’s abhorrence of or indifference to reading, I fundamentally don’t quite understand how that works. What do non-readers do during their morning commute on the train, or while waiting at the doctor’s office, or in those few moments before sleep when the brain needs something other than the ins and outs of the closing day to occupy its thoughts? I just don’t know.

In one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite books (albeit not a book I read in this past year), a bookseller remarks to a young boy that “any time is an auspicious time for books.” While I agree with the bookseller, if my year (and now beyond) of cataloging has shown me anything, it’s that his observation needs a little tweaking – I think every time is an auspicious time for books.

Happy reading.

Erica Shipow is a 5th grade writing teacher and librarian at Boston Collegiate Charter School in Boston, MA. When she was four, she threw a book down the stairs and was instantly reprimanded by her mother, who told her that “books are our friends.” She is happy to have made friends with so many books since then. You can find her on Twitter at @BorisReads, although she has yet to post a single tweet. This is her very first blog post.