by John Colgan-Davis
My wife and I have been married for 34 years. We have lived in our house in West Mt. Airy for 24 of those 34 years. I have been a teacher for all but three of those 34 years. And for all of those years I have been an inveterate reader, buyer of books and generator of paper products.
In short, I have a lot of stuff in my house. Too much stuff in my house. Way too much stuff in my house. And as I head to the last third of my life, it is clear that much of that has to go. “Downsizing” is now underway at the Colgan-Davis household.
Some of this was easy. I had papers from when I started teaching in 1972. Ditto machine copies and carbon copies. (Who remembers those?) I had handwritten assignment pages and class plans and notes. These are things I haven’t looked at in 30+ years, so they are easily discarded or recycled. There are LP’s, cassette tapes and CD’s that are in bookshelves to the right of and behind my desk in my study, and they are all (or mostly) alphabetized and out of the way.
They will be passed on to my son, and he will decide what to do with them. What has been both harder and more interesting is dealing with the vast array of books that were and are on shelves literally surrounding my desk. I love reading, and I love books, and I have books dating back to my high school and college years. Some of these were textbooks and books about teaching, and they were fairly easy to box and remove.
Others, though, were much harder to discard. I have gone through periods of reading and investigating different types and styles of literature in my life, and looking through some of those books reminded me of writers whose style and outlook really affected me and of where I was at certain points in my life. The Kenneth Patchen books (which I am holding onto) reminded me of my late teens and early 20s when experimental, adventurous writing about serious real world things was an important interest of mine.
The John A. Williams, Alice Walker, Ernest J. Gaines, Richard Wright, William Melvin Kelley, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison books all had me thinking about my discovery and explorations of the many styles and voices of African-American writers and how they helped shape my awareness of all things American.
The historical novels of the Colliers that I read and later taught to seventh graders reminded me of my amazing realization that history is really stories and that by unlocking some of the stories, I could give students a deeper way to see and think about the past.
Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosley and Lawrence Block all highlighted how much solid, realistic crime fiction moves me. And books about different religions and cultures all took me back to that sense of wonder and curiosity about the world I felt as I was finding out about so many peoples and different ways of viewing life and the world. They helped expand my understanding, my knowledge and my spirit.
These books and the many more I looked at were important pieces of who I was becoming and who I became. They speak so eloquently not only to the role of books in my life but to the power of books to inform, influence, lead and support. They are a testament to the power of the written word to affect people in long-lasting and profound ways. Yes, the downsizing had to happen, and it has not been unbridled fun. But looking back at the books and realizing what they have done for me has been an unexpected bonus. I truly owe a lot of my life to those thoughts turned into words written on paper and bound for people to discover. What a gift! What an unadulterated and wonderful gift.
John Colgan-Davis is a long-time Mt. Airy resident, a teacher and the harmonica player for the Dukes of Destiny, Philly’s best rockin’ blues band.