Reading Time: 4 minutes


Something, well…ambiguous…happened the other day. Actually it was ambiguous at first, but it got more biguous as I thought about it. (Step away from the dictionary.) I wasn’t at all sure what to think about it at first. In the end, I decided it was…good. Really good, in fact.

But before I write about that, I have some setup to do. There are at least two stories embedded in this one. I’ll start with the open shelf policy and hope I remember the point in the end.

Years ago, I recall my mother-in-law describing her father’s book-lined study. He was a Baptist minister, by all accounts a very good man. His daughter was awed by the rows upon rows of spines of books along the walls of that room. I could picture it immediately, the walls of books and the little girl.

It got me wondering how my own kids would remember the books in our house. We have just over a thousand of them — as I was painfully reminded when we moved — including many old beauties. While living in the UK in 2004, I visited 63 used bookstores and acquired 93 books (I know the stats only because I was keeping a diary for an article I was writing about the antiquarian bookstores of London).


The first one I found — the first one — was a beautifully rebound volume of David Hume’s History of England, a second edition from 1796, stuck in amongst murder mysteries in the open market under Waterloo Bridge. It was £10, about $18. (Scroll up to the top photo again — it’s on the top shelf near the middle, bright brown leatherette binding with gold lettering, just to the right of the little red Huxleys.) If that doesn’t addict a person to scouring the bookstores of London, nothing will.


I’d love nothing more than to bore you by listing the other 92 I found, but I see your cursor twitching toward the scroll bar. The point is that, largely as a result of this fetish of mine, books are all over the place in our house.

In the 1920s, newly-moneyed members of the American middle class signaled their rise out of the working class in a couple of ways. Step one was putting a piano in the parlor. A wide selection of sheet music with elaborate illustrations on their covers would sit on the music rack. Some of these pianos were even played. Most were not.

(I grew up in California next-door to a retired couple. In their living room was a highly-polished parlor grand piano. I often wondered if anyone played it. My question was answered when I realized the framed pictures that covered the piano were also lined up on the closed cover of the keyboard.)

The other way the climbers of the 20s would signal their newfound class (pronounced “cleeeass”) was by filling their bookshelves with the classics (“cleeeassics”) and keeping their tops well-dusted.

Though there are certainly books in our collection we’ll never get to — life, I’m told, ends — ours do get a workout. One message our kids are getting is that books are not for wallpaper, and not for establishing one’s cleeeass. They are invitations to walk around in someone else’s head. And I wanted to be sure my kids knew that invitation was addressed to them as well. So one day, shortly after my mother-in-law’s story, I was taking a book down from a shelf and saw Connor, then about eight, reading one of his own books nearby.

“Hey Con, come here a sec.” He did. I indicated the books on the bookshelves in our living room and asked whose books they were.

“Yours,” he said. “And Mom’s.”

I told him they were actually for our whole family, and that if he was ever curious about any of them, he could take any book off any shelf anytime he wanted and look at it. I showed him which books were old and showed him how to open those carefully, supporting the spine, never flattening the pages. For a couple of days he played along, then lost interest, which was fine. The idea was the thing: he knew that there was in principle no prohibited knowledge.

I told Erin the same thing when she reached that age, with the same result. But a few months ago, though she was only six, I had a hunch it was Delaney’s turn.

Sure enough, she leapt on it. I’ll come upstairs now and find her in the recliner in my study with a book in her lap, leafing through pages, sounding out words and looking for pictures. A few weeks ago it was Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and she was gawking at the snake-festooned head of Medusa, dangling from the outstretched grasp of Perseus. “AWESOME!” she said. And it was.

I’ve found her looking through a leatherbound Bible in German from the 1880s, Stephen Jay Gould’s Full House, and an illustrated Decameron. But as often as not, I don’t know what she’s reading. My study is bisected by a freestanding bookcase. When I’m working at my desk, I can’t see the recliner on the other side, though I can often hear her turning pages, saying “Awesome!” under her breath or (most hilariously) reading entire sentences of Vonnegut aloud. But it’s hard to prepare yourself for the really big moments when they come. And they always do.

“Dad?” said the bookcase.

“Yeah sweetie,” I said without looking up from my desk.

“What does ‘humanist’ mean?”

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.