Looking for Meaning While Browsing for Books

Ten books in the tenth month

“She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.”Louisa May Alcott

One of my very first posts on this blog was about used book sales, the books we find, and what those books mean to us as readers. A couple of weeks ago, I went to the annual fall used book sale sponsored and hosted by the local chapter of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). In our town, every fall, these dedicated volunteers place donation bins at all of the grocery stores and then sell those books during a weekend in October in the middle of the almost vacant mall. All the money raised from the sale goes to scholarships and local grants. A good cause, a good time, and a really good bargain; it’s one of my favorite traditions of fall.

I go to this book sale almost every year, looking for bargains and finding bits of myself amidst the clutter of books. The books are ragged and overflowing, organized a bit haphazardly, poured into copy paper boxes and beer boxes on long conference tables, with more piles spilling out from under the tables. Narrow aisles barely divide the tables and piles. Paper signs taped to the tables and wire dividers give one a rough idea of where the treasures might be found, but topic guides on the nonfiction side are broad and the letter guides on the fiction side are also broad like A-E and F-J. The fun of the search is the digging and discovery, looking for the subjects, authors, and covers that excite me. Prices are low enough for serious temptation, but after several years of culling my collection, and getting rid of some of the dust trappers on my shelves, I told myself I could pick no more than 10 books. Like a three-year-old, I often do best if my limits are set beforehand. I grasped an armful books as I meandered through the rows and piles, but shifted and moved the books around as new ones caught my attention. I constantly made decisions to keep my harvest to those blessed ten. By the time I wandered to the checkout table and the volunteer cashiers, I was pleased with my final finds.

When I go to a book sale or a book store with the intention of buying several books, I become optimistic about my mind and spirit. Choosing books with tempting titles and topics is like making an appointment with the brain. It’s an exercise in finding new directions and looking for answers and questions between the pages. Snap judgements are made about covers, while favorite authors are snapped up quickly. Each year I visit the book sale my armload of books is like a time capsule; I feel like I am taking a snapshot of my life with the books I purchase. Sometimes I am consciously aware of what I am looking for, other times I let the books find me as I browse.

These are the ten books I found this month. This is what I think they mean to me as they sit on the shelf waiting be read, rest in my bag as I carry them to work for a lunchtime read, or fall out of my hand during midnight read-sleep-read cycles. This is what books do for me as I mark their pages with pencil notes in the margins, select pages with scraps of paper and numerous book marks, turn dog-ear corners on favorite passages, and let pages curl on my stomach in the bliss of a late Saturday afternoon bathtub read. These ten books are like bookmarks to the pages of my life, summarizing who I am or who I would like to be as of October 2013. Just as a fortune-teller might read the indentations of a palm or the tea leaves in an almost empty cup, I look at my book choices with wonder about the past, the present, the future.

1. Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self by Sarah Ban Breathnach. Three years ago at the same book sale, I picked up Breathnach’s 1995 bestseller Simple Abundance, which I enjoyed, even though I’ve only read sections of it in fits and starts. Yeah, it might be a bit of a self-help book with whispers of Oprah Winfrey (Anyone who knows me well, knows I gag at the thought of O.W.), but I like daily devotional books and I am looking for more authenticity in myself and in my life. I look forward to using this book as a touchstone, as a tool in the morning or late at night for a short time of prayer and reflection. This book, I hope, will remind me to slow down, breathe, and pray. Time and meditation, in small doses, even in fits and starts, is a gift and a map back to who I am.

2. The Frugal Gourmet Whole Family Cookbook by Jeff Smith. I am a sucker for cookbooks and recipes. I have never seen the Frugal Gourmet cooking show, which I gather after reading the book jacket was a 90s PBS phenomenon, but I love the idea of frugality and good cooking. It’s always fun to try out new recipes and a back-to-healthy-basics approach is what I want. The recipes look simple, heartening, healthy, and comforting. I can’t wait to make gnocchi and I look forward to trying some of the “cooking for one” recipes. I think the message for me in this choice is go back to the basics and to enjoy the freedom that comes from frugality. There is joy in wanting less.

3. A Short Story Writer’s Companion by Tom Bailey. As a reader, I love the short story. I love that a whole tale can be spun in a few thousand words. Short story collections and anthologies are some of my favorite books. As a wannabe writer, the short story is something that I have wanted to try for a long time. This summer, I wrote and shared my first real attempt at a short story. I plan to write a few more, to exercise that part of the writing muscle. Writing fiction intimidates me, while the length of a short story comforts me. I want to delve into reading this short manual and to analyze the parts of the short story. Sometimes it’s good to look for an instruction manual and a starting point, no matter what direction we are heading.

4. South Dakota’s Black Hills and Badlands by T.D. Grifith, Dustin D. Floyd, Bert Gildart, and Jane Gildart. At the beginning of the summer, I camped and hiked with friends in the Black Hills. I fell in love with the area a few years before and I want to visit more. This guidebook jumped out at me on the travel table at the sale. This place calls to me with its landforms and history and people. I can imagine myself like a boomerang, coming back to the same spots year after year. I want to dig in a little at a time, and while work and school fill up most of my days and evenings, my bedside travels will include the Badlands and Black Hills.

5. Second Nature by Michael Pollan. I am not quite ready to join the Pollan fan club. Yes, he wrote those food books that everyone gushes about, but anytime something becomes that popular, the contrarian side of me (which is more than half of me, I know for sure) tends to want to run in the other direction. I am glad he got people thinking about food, but what I’ve read of his only makes me yearn for Wendell Berry, who I think said it better and before anyone knew who Pollan was. However, I figured a second chance is due the author of a book called Second Nature, which is all about gardening. Plus, there’s a whole chapter devoted to compost, my favorite topic ever, so it can’t be that bad. Maybe, I’ll learn something new and it’s good to open up my mind and try out an author whom I really want to resist.

6. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. & 7. My Ántonia by Willa Cather. While most of the books at the book sale were of the mass market paperback or mass printed hardback varieties, there was a small “classic literature” section. While I am not an antiquarian book collector, I love older hardback books. When Cather’s name jumped out at me, I grabbed two of them. One is a 1949 reprint of the 1926 classic and there’s a lovely little green and silver sticker on the inside cover that says “Santa Fe Book and Stationery Co”with Phone 58 on the next line. In the days of smart phones and texting, I yearn for a time (not that long ago) of two digit phone numbers. The other looks like an early edition with a Bellevue Public Schools library stamp inside the back cover. It’s fun to think about the journey of used books and where they will go next if they leave my shelves. After a quick stop in Red Cloud, Nebraska, this past spring, I can’t wait to curl up with a couple of Cather classics over the fall and winter, so I can return to her childhood home and the home to some of her literary inspirations next year.

8. Everyday Abundance: Meditations of a Grateful Heart by Toni Sortor. This pocket-size devotional grabbed my attention because of its small size and its title. I love the idea of being grateful for the little things. They are easy for me to see, notice, enjoy, and count when I think of things I’m thankful for in everyday life. Sometimes, though, I need a prompt, a reminder. Sometimes, I need a spiritual kick in the seat. I have decided to slip this book into the pocket of the door by the driver’s seat in my car. When I need that spiritual kick, in the midst of a busy day, I can pull out this devotional and read a meditation in two or three minutes. This can be perfect in the transitions of the day: at the end of lunch, after a long drive, before a long stretch of teaching, and at that exhaustion point when I am not sure I can last the length of the day. Just like I keep small snacks in the car to stave off hunger pains and headaches, I can look forward to those moments when I need spiritual sustenance.

9. Rick Steve’s Spain 2009 by Rick Steves. In my thirty plus years, I have made only a small number of trips outside of the U.S.A. They include a trip when I was 18 to Juarez, Mexico with friends to visit their family; a day trip to a Canada border town while visiting a friend in northern Minnesota in the late nineties; a trip in 2008 to Germany, Italy, and Austria with my younger sister who was living and working in Germany; and a camping trip to a country music festival in Saskatchewan this past summer. Despite this, I dream about traveling much, much more. I want my next big trip to be to Spain, scouring the entire country and including a thru-hike on the Camino de Santiago. Reading the guidebook can season my dreams, taking the small steps towards a big excursion.

10. Running and Being: The Total Experience by Dr. George Sheehan. Sheehan is one of my favorite writers and not just because he writes about running. He died from cancer in the early 90s, but I still think of him in the present tense. Each chapter is a verb and a meditation. What I love about Sheehan is that he brings a great love of language and philosophy to me in beautifully written passages. He shows how one can live fully and forcefully, with love and action. I’m trying, I’m learning from Sheehan. The beauty is in the doing and I want my life to be full of verbs, just like the book: racing, understanding, beginning, healing, losing. It’s all there:  the moments of a life wanting to be lived.

If you’re looking for direction or questioning your path, take a walk through a used book store or a used book sale or through the library. Walk aimlessly and find the titles and subjects that grab you. Peruse the shelves of your own dusty collection. Find direction in words, find sustenance in words, find action in words. Read, think, enjoy.

Take time for the words to sink in and take time to put some words in action.



  1. What a great idea to have annual book sales like that. And how well you write about this! I feel like I want to read all those books myself 🙂


    • Well, considering my bulky book collection, I’m not sure that I used much restraint. I guess it’s all relative, but considering the low prices, it was hard not to leave with more. There’s always the library, or next year’s sale! 🙂


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