Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. is a Gynecologist, Director of the New York Menopause Center, Clinical Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Assistant Attending Obstetrician and Gynecologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She is a board certified fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Allen is also a member of the Faculty Advisory Board and the Women’s Health Director of The Weill Cornell Community Clinic (WCCC). Dr. Allen was the recipient of the 2014 American Medical Women’s Association Presidential Award.

by Patricia Yarberry Allen, MD | bio

I have a profound disorder known as bibliophilia. The symptoms are recognizable only to others who are affected:

– Obsessive attachment to books
– Constant acquisition of new books
– Inability to loan or share a book, despite a determined need to introduce and talk about my current literary love affair
– Inability to borrow books (since I have learned that I don’t return them)
– Feverish excitement upon reading reviews of new books by critics I respect

I did not know that there was a name for my behavior until I read "A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books," by Nicholas A. Basbanes. I just assumed that I really liked reading and owning books — even though I knew that my total immersion in the lives of characters and their experiences often left me feeling that I had written the book along with the author.

Basbanes’ most recent book, "Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World," helped me to realize how we can understand ourselves and others more fully by the books we choose to read.

The onset of my disorder was obvious in early childhood. Growing up on a farm in rural Kentucky, there were few books in my home, even though my mother was a teacher. Farming income didn’t allow for many luxuries, and books were not going to feed the cattle, fertilize the land or provide seeds for the gardens and cash crops.

I began to read early and learned that books could take me away to places with people and adventures vastly different than my own. I was sent to the local one-room schoolhouse, two miles from home, when I was not yet 5. There were books at the school, but not enough to satisfy me.

Shortly after school began, a miracle occurred: A small truck with an enclosed back arrived. I had never seen so many books. There were three shelves on each side of the traveling library filled with titles thought to be appropriate for children in first through eighth grades.

We were allowed to choose only two books — two books to get us through the two weeks until the Bookmobile made a return visit. My affliction began at once. I bribed other children to select books I wanted, which I then had access to along with my own.

Basbanes says readers who have had access to few books often count words and pages before starting a new work. This describes my method — then as well as now. I always chose the thickest books and would begin each one ravenously, only to feel intense sorrow building as I reached the last page.

I believed that all the books in the world were on the back of the Bookmobile. When they were gone, I feared I would be alone. This attachment persists even now. Librarians and intelligent booksellers have insisted — with great accuracy, I’m sure — that there is never a life long enough to read all the books one would like, but my belief system has proved unalterable.

It is not an accident that I care for many book people in my work. I have patients who are literary agents, editors, writers, publishers, manuscript readers, journalists, critics and booksellers. I have been the beneficiary of their generosity for years. New books, sometimes not yet available to the public, arrive unbidden in the post, from many fairy godmothers. There is some unknown magic that guides these gift givers, and I always love the books they choose just for me.

Most recently I received an advance copy of Amy Bloom’s new novel, "Away." I loved her other books: "Come to Me"; "A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You"; "Love Invents Us"; and "Normal." I approached this present with special enthusiasm.

As usual, I spent time looking at the choice of the book jacket. "Away" has an unusual cover, taken from a painting by Sherrie Wolf. A formal still life of perfect ripe fruit, almost spilling out of a raised bowl, is backed by a vista of Yosemite Valley. On the back cover, a large, succulent apple balances on the edge of the magnificent bowl. A formal landscape of larger trees, rough landscape and blue sky finishes this painting.

I think about the title as I study the cover. I know something of Bloom’s style and astonishing narrative terrain from her other books. I suspect that I will be joining the characters on a journey from a desolate landscape to a place of abundance. 

The next part of the ritual is the page counting. This book is 235 pages long. I am in mourning as I begin. Last month, the brilliant Janet Maslin wrote a review of "Away" in The New York Times. Go read it. It tells you everything you need to know. I am not writing a book review; I am writing an obituary.

"Away" is an astonishing story with ambitious character development and a memorable plot that will stay with me forever. But in the end, I will remember the role that words and dictionaries and a thesaurus play in the life of the book’s heroine, a young Jewish immigrant named Lillian Leyb.

She comes to New York from Russia with no words to describe where she has been or how to lament her losses in a new language. With underlying pluck and nothing to lose, she encounters the magic of language along her journey. The novel ends with a list of the books Leyb has acquired over the course of her life:

– Seven dictionaries
– Her thesaurus
– A copy of "Bulfinch’s Mythology"
– The collected works of William Shakespeare
– Two shelves full of other poets

"When there is a warm, bright afternoon, she walks over to the river; she sits with a blanket and a book …," writes Amy Bloom.

It is a perfect scene — and a reminder to us bibliophiles that we will never be lonely. Ours is a community of passion that sustains us through life’s struggles and nourishes us with continuous knowledge and joy.

Books fill our minds and imaginations with words and glorious experiences. At their best, books take us "Away."

* * * * *
Read an excerpt of chapter one of "Away," by Amy Bloom.

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  • Dr. Pat Allen September 19, 2007 at 10:12 am

    Stephen and Clara, thank you for your kind words. It’s wonderful that through this blog we make these kinds of connections!
    I will forever be grateful to Mary Bingham. Her Bookmobile truly did expand my world and make me aware of the possibilities to come.
    And Clara, in response to your question, the answer is: One word a time!

  • Clara Bingham September 19, 2007 at 9:01 am

    Little did my grandmother, Mary Bingham, know that her efforts to bring books to rural Kentucky would have had such a successful outcome. Her passion was literacy, and Dr. Pat Allen lives as her legacy. Thank you, Pat, for sharing with us your love of books and language. My question is, how do you do it all?

  • Stephen Reily September 14, 2007 at 9:38 am

    This is a wonderful article for readers of all ages and genders, everywhere. I am a man who follows Women’s Voices for Change – also a Kentuckian whose wife’s grandmother (another bibliophile) led the effort (in her 50s) to launch the Kentucky Bookmobiles you enjoyed as a girl. She would have been very happy to read this lovely article and to enjoy the long-term impact of her work. One link at a time, women do change the world!