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A HOME WITHOUT BOOKS IS SMALL INDEED

When I was in my 20s, I'd go antiquing on the weekends, buying piece by piece my eclectic collection of nothing-matches-anything but everything-has-meaning furniture.

One purchase at an estate sale stands out - a large, solid, intricately carved cherrywood bookcase, circa 1880.Its ornate appearance and solid build made it eminently worthy of all the grand words that would soon rest upon it. It became THE bookcase by which I measure all others.

Maybe it sounds kind of crazy to put so much value on a THING, but home is where my books are.

The hearth may be the poetic symbol of the home, but a home without books is small no matter what its square footage. The outside world seems somehow safer because of knowledge gleaned between the first and the last page of many a work, fiction or non-fiction.

In my 30s, the beloved bookcase was lost in the give-and-take of a divorce; my ex-husband valued it for his own sentimental reasons.

Even now, years later and thousands of miles apart, when I talk with my ex, I always ask if the bookcase needs refinishing. He asks if the blue antique sofa I got in exchange needs recovering, and we mull a swap but always keep what we have.

I always figured I'd find a bookcase I'd like as much as the one I gave up, but a good bookcase - one with character - is, like a good man, hard to find.

But time has passed and now books (some unopened, others barely cracked, some skimmed, others read and re-read) overflow a couple of small bookcases, covering my coffee table and taking over my home like kudzu covers the South.

Recently it reached the point that the search began in earnest for a bookcase that would go with my present life. Something new, I decided. At furniture stores, sales representatives pointed to the HOME ENTERTAINMENT CENTERS or HOME THEATERS. You know, those wall-long pieces that need BIG ROOMS, that have a HUGE cut-out center section for a HUGE television. And a couple of shelves on each side for a CD player and, oh yes, perhaps room for a few books, unless you prefer to "accessorize" instead.

A friend who accompanied me saw the shocked expression on my face when a polite saleswoman asked if a Home Theater was what I was looking for.

"No, she has LOTS of books," he said.

"Oh," she said, puzzled. Then she pointed to a corner with a couple of drab but functional bookcases. Big enough, but close inspection revealed their backs were cardboard instead of wood.

At the third or fourth stop, at a store with furniture more expensive than my almost-new car, a salesman seeing me turn up my nose at a couple of ordinary-looking oak bookcases smugly suggested I do "the old college thing" and build my own with concrete blocks and pieces of board.

Was he implying reading was for college kids?

Our homes are a reflection of what we value. When we build our lives around huge televisions and powerful computers, it is no wonder that Johnny and Jane can't read and don't have the patience to think through problems slowly and methodically. Many are on fast forward - their lives revolving around videos and fast-reaction computers. Books allow you to sit down and slow down.

Reading was once a far more common and valued pastime. Books were an integral part of our homes - and our lives.

Now our days are filled with cookie-cutter stuff - processed food, mass-produced clothes, lookalike homes. But the environment we create inside is of our own design.

This week, I found an arty bookcase at a store near the university in my city. Trendy old. Or out-of-stock gaudy. But perfect.

The Italian/Southwestern design doesn't match anything else in my home, which means, of course, that it matches everything. And it has character.

As Winston Churchill, who took great pleasure in his home, implies when he wrote that a dwelling shapes us, it is not only who, but what we surround ourselves with that changes our lives as well.