How our books tell the story of us

What your home library says about you and why that matters

Hello friend! Welcome to another issue of Story Cauldron, where I examine places where we find stories in everyday life. This week I look at how our books and personal libraries can offer glimpses into our personal stories. I was also interviewed for a podcast!


Recently I read a piece in the Tor newsletter: The Libraries of Who We Are.

In this article, the writer Molly Templeton explores how much of her personal history is represented by her personal library—how she displays her books, which ones she has chosen to keep, and which ones she recommends to others.

And here, I realized, is yet another place in which storytelling resides, for it is within our own libraries, and our relationships with books, that we tell our own stories.

Kid’s reads

Think back to when you were a kid.

When did you learn to read? What were your favorite books? Where did you get your books?

Our first interactions with books tells a lot about who we are, and can also shed light on where we grew up, how much access to quality early education we had, how much time our parents had to read to us, and how we spent our free time as children.

Since you chose to subscribe to this newsletter, I’m going to guess you grew up as a reader or at least discovered a love of books at some point in your life. And I bet if asked, you could rattle off a long string of memories that have to do with learning to read, getting lost in whatever book you were reading, choosing places to visit, careers, or other activities because you read about it in a book, and so on. Some of you might have turned your love of reading into a career, or it was something about books that helped you meet your spouse.

So for many of us, books are an essential part of our history and the person we became.

For me, before I knew there was such a thing as genres, I loved books that had some sort of magical element, and I gobbled up things like all of the Oz books. I also liked reading all of the Time-Life series my parents had lined up along the shelves in the living room—books on ancient civilizations and science and history.

When I was a bit older, my grade school class took a bus to the library every so often, and I got to check out as many books as I could carry. In this way I managed to read through the entire Nancy Drew series as well as Trixie Belden and the Chronicles of Narnia.

I discovered my first contemporary “adult” fantasy (i.e. one not written for kids) when I was about 13. The book was Sorcerer’s Legacy by Janny Wurts. I had never heard of her, but the book sounded like fun. And I still have that book today, with pages that have aged to the color of coffee au lait. Back in the 1990s I attended WorldCon in San Antonio and got to meet Janny Wurts at a “tea party.” Everyone else was fangirling over her most recent novels, but I was the only one who had read Sorcerer’s Legacy. When I produced my old copy, she nearly fell out of her chair because it was so old. As it turned out, it was her first novel, and mine was the first printing.

Throughout high school I read practically every fantasy that came out—and for some reason, it’s hard to let those go. Will I ever read the Belgariad (by David and Leigh Eddings) again? It’s doubtful. But they, just like Wurts’ books and so many others, are a part of my history. Because of my love of reading and fantasy, I ended up becoming an English major and then going on to study history at the graduate level. I also started writing my first short stories and my first novel in high school, and have been writing ever since.

Grown-up books

Now consider today.

Do you have a library of books, or do you store yours on your e-reader? Do you perhaps read books and then give them away, or get your books from a local library? If you buy physical books, where do you get them—do you go to a local bookstore and weave your way through the shelves, picking up certain books that speak to you, or do you order yours from Amazon? Do you prefer crisp new hardbacks or used paperbacks?

What kinds of books do you enjoy the most? Do you read fiction or nonfiction? Cookbooks or fantasies? Novels written by people long dead, or books written by young up-and-coming authors?

And what do you do with them? Do you share them with your friends, or sell them to your local Half Price Books or in yard sales, or build up a sizeable library in your house? When you move, do your friends and family bemoan all of the heavy boxes that are “just your books”?

I think thinking through these questions can be a lot of fun. Every one of us who reads and loves books will answer the questions in a unique and fascinating way, and how we interact with books that can tell someone a lot about our character and history.

My own library

I won’t deny it—I have a lot of books. A couple of moves ago, I had even more, since I had been a history PhD student who accumulated a lot of fat monographs about every possible historical topic in English and European history from the start of Christianity to 1700. But most of those are gone now. My library today consists of some novels that, like Sorcerer’s Legacy and the Belgariad novels, have stayed with me since my teens, a smattering of history books (mostly related to writing projects, a sizeable collection of books about the craft of writing, and quite a few about magic, esoteric topics, faeries, and the like. I also have a decent number of books on herbalism and botany, and a few cookbooks. And I have been accumulating a sizeable number of books on my Kindle, which I also like to read sometimes.

The rest—the things that weigh down the moving truck, time and time again—are novels. I love trade paperbacks and hardcover novels, which are large and heavy. They line my shelves, sometimes two-deep, with more stacked on top. I keep them around as a source of comfort, and I often consider re-reading them (which is ridiculous, given my to-be-read piles, but it still happens).

The truth is, I just can’t part with novels I’ve enjoyed, There’s something comforting about returning to a familiar world and hanging out with old friends. Having my books on the shelves means that I can hang out with Claire and Jamie, or Diana and Matthew, or Jude and Cardan, any time I wish.

So for me—and, I suspect, for you—books are part of my history and my identity, and they are as important to me as a photo album or home video. As a writer and historian and avid reader, perhaps they are even more important.

What’s your story?

In the comments, I would love to hear about the books you love and your library. Which books do you keep, and which do you give away? Do you have rooms full of books, or do you have a small, heavily curated collection of favorites? Or have you migrated everything to digital.

I’m also curious. I have to report to jury duty in two weeks, and I’ll need to bring a book with me. If you had to bring along one book to read for potentially a long stretch of time, what would you choose? Would you grab the latest best-seller or would you bring along something you know you’ll like, perhaps the next book in a series by a favorite author? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Leave a comment


But wait, there’s more…

I was interviewed for a podcast!

My friend Nicole Rivera runs the group Stop Writing Alone, and she interviewed me for her latest podcast. On this podcast, I talk about my writing career, some of the things that I’ve struggled with as a writer, and what I’m working on right now. I also discuss why I’m on Substack and what I’m doing with this newsletter.

You can find the podcast episode on Spotify or on the Stop Writing Alone podcast page.

If you’re enjoying Story Cauldron, check out the podcast and learn a little more about what makes me tick.

The Boy Who Can Taste Color

More exciting news! Book 2 of my Favor Faeries series is just about to come to life. The Boy Who Can Taste Color is a full-length novel, and you can start with it even if you haven’t read my first book, The Girl Behind the Camera. If you’re on the fence about it, I’ll be opening up the first couple of chapters to everyone on Story Cauldron very soon. If you like what you see and want to read more, you can sign up for a paid subscription.

Why do I charge? I’m a freelance writer and editor, and when people sign up for paid subscriptions, it means I can spend my time writing rather than hunting for another client. I also believe that art has value, and authors who spend hundreds of hours on a novel should not be giving it away for free.

At the same time, if you’re a student or have limited means, I don’t want money to be a barrier. If you want to read my stories and can’t afford a subscription, just shoot me an email at jackie @ jackiedana.com.

Thanks for being here. As always, I’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to leave a comment!