Sitting on the bed of a friend of mine in Cairo, Egypt, nursing my baby as the rest of the group discussed a theological point in the living room, I began looking at the books on the night stand. I was delighted to find that we had the same taste in books. There was the book “A Street in Marrakech” and Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak“, both written by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. There was “Who are God’s People in the Middle East” by Gary Burge and another whose name I don’t recall. As I sat looking at the inside flap of one of them, I was happily contemplating our similarities, until I saw the name of the owner on the upper right corner of the page. It was then I realized the book was ours. It had made the rounds of an international community in Cairo and had ended up on the shelf of our friends.
Books in expatriate communities are used efficiently. They don’t sit comfortably on shelves surrounded by other books, collecting dust and cobwebs. Instead, in the absence of public libraries and readily available book stores, they go from individuals to families, forgetting that somewhere in the community there is a rightful owner.
Here in the U.S. it’s rare that someone wants to borrow one of our books. They either check out a copy at a local library or buy one for themselves through Amazon or the rapidly closing Borders chain.
One of the gifts we received at our wedding many years ago was a set of book ends accompanied by a card that said “Wherever you go, Whatever you do, always take your books! Love from Dr. Ann”. We did and we have.
When our children were little, on the rare occasion where they would chew on a book, my husband would look at them and say “Books are our friends! We don’t chew on our friends, so we don’t chew on our books!” (Although one of our sons did, in fact, chew on his friends or anyone in the nursery that he could find).
Bookshelves line the walls in our family room and a tall bookshelf is in our living room. Bedside stands overflow with our favorites as does our coffee table. But it has now come to a point where, no longer part of an international community, we are going to begin the overwhelming and potentially explosive process of sorting and getting rid of books. For some this would be an easy task. They like books but they don’t find a part of their identity in books. When they read a book at night, they don’t feel like they are curling up in bed with their friends.
For us it’s different and we know it could be a long process. Because with the sorting comes the memory of places and characters long forgotten and the huge possibility that we end up curled up in a corner with one of those books, one last chance to spend time with a friend.