6) A tattered copy of four Shakespearean tragedies, circa 1967
This was the first Shakespeare I ever read, the copy I discovered on my parents’ bookshelves when I was 6. I could barely puzzle out most of the words, but there was something fascinating about those oddly-named characters: Hamlet, Juliet, Mercutio, Brutus, Othello, Iago. And I loved knowing it had been my mother’s copy when she was in school. I have a high-toned, gilt-edged “Complete Works of Shakespeare,” but I tenderly repair each page in this beloved, battered paperback as though it were a wounded soldier.
5) A much-circled, much-written-in paperback of Roger Zelazny’s “Lord of Light,” circa 1977
A boy I had a crush on was reading this and loaned it to me. I desperately wanted to own something of his, so I bought a fresh copy, painstakingly copied all his notes into it, and returned that one to him instead, thus keeping my precious talisman. What an idiot. I got over the boy, but my love for Zelazny never faded, and I was eventually to bond with my husband over a shared copy of “Unicorn Variations,” yet another Zelazny work.
4) “The Book of Lists,” circa 1977
As a reference book it leaves much to be desired (accuracy, for one thing), but this Christmas gift probably inspired my love of reference work more than any other. And then there’s the inscription: “To Lesley, We hope that your intellectual curiosity will be somewhat satisfied by this book. Love, Mom and Dad.”
3) Pablo Neruda’s “100 Love Sonnets,” circa 1986
The most romantic gift I’ve ever received. Just wouldn’t have been the same as a Nook “Lend Me.”
2) An advance reader copy of a then-unknown fantasy about child wizards, circa 1998
Libraries often get free “advance reader” copies from eager publishers, and I occasionally pick one up for lunchtime reading. I’d gotten a few pages into this thick juvenile book with a bespectacled kid on the cover; unimpressed, I stuck it on a book shelf and forgot about it. Six months later, there was total frenzy over a marvelous new children’s fantasy about a boy wizard and his adventures at a magical school. “Hmmm. … Sounds vaguely familiar …” I dug out my advance reader and sure enough, I’d rejected “Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone.” I own the entire set now, but I hang on to this as a reminder of how smart I’m not.
1) My “Wizard of Oz” book collection, circa 1968-1972
When I was little, my mother was a bridge fiend. The stakes were high, because every month as she was leaving she would whisper, “If I win, I’m buying you another Oz book!” Thanks to my mother’s card-sharping ways, I soon amassed quite a collection: all 14 in the original L. Frank Baum series, several sequels by other writers, and many of Baum’s non-Oz books. These were my Harry Potters: I consumed them obsessively, colored the pictures, slept with them, traveled with them, dreamed about them. They were my intro to fantasy, but also to social commentary, parody and irony; they kindled my taste for Wilde, Shaw, Austen and Swift. Four years ago my daughter discovered them: I read them to her until she could read them herself. She then consumed them obsessively, colored the pictures, slept with them, traveled with them, dreamed about them. I’ve bought her a few new copies, but she prefers my dog-eared, colored-in ones. “Old books are the best, Mom!”
None of these books hold value for anyone but me; you won’t see them at Christie’s or in a museum catalog. But they connect me powerfully to my past selves and the people I love most. Ebooks have their place, and I welcome anything that democratizes literature. Yet can ebooks ever recount the story of a life?
— Ms. Williams is head of adult services at the Evanston Public Library