My Library/ Myself

You can learn a lot about me by furtive browsing of my bookshelves. And for a home as small as mine, I have a lot of them–four custom bookcases plus furniture with shelves.

The kitchen bookcases, tucked into the side of the island, was supposed to hold cookbooks, but their space has been usurped by travel.

This bookcase, tucked into one side of the kithcen island, was supposed to hold cookbooks, but their space has been usurped by travel.

Like the shelf filled with books on India, a place of my dreams, a country I visited in 2007. This shelf holds the hardbacks, like Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Years ago I wrote him a gushy fan letter predicting he’d write a sequel. Time passed. Then one day I received a scrawled postcard (now framed and displayed), thanking me for my note, but disavowing any such desire.  “After 1349 pages,” Seth wrote, “I’m done with these characters for a while.” At last, the much anticipated A Suitable Girl is due out in 2017. A few books over sits a copy of The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre, inscribed to my mother “Charlotte Ainsworth, with best regards, Subash Razdan, President, IACA (1987).” IACA is the India American Cultural Association. How interesting that the two of us, Southern to the bone, independently followed a similar path.

This same bookcase holds my autographed hardback books, including, among others, The Witches of Eastwick (John Updike), The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco), The Shipping News (Annie Proulx), and The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood). But those most precious to me are the ones signed by my dear friend Lynn Cullen.  On another shelf, childhood favorites, like the two Alice books, whose John Tenniel illustrations I “improved” with my crayons. I also have a small collection of books owned by family members,  mostly great aunts who died long before I ever came along, their signatures like faded spider webs.

Starting bottom left, counter-clockwise: Mother's used copy of Kenilworth (Sir Walter Scott); Great Aunt Laura's copy of Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush (Ian Maclaren); Daddy's The Water Babies (Charles Kingsley), a 1915 Christmas gift from his Aunt Marian Ball; Blanche's travel journal, along with a gentleman's calling card.

Starting bottom left, counter-clockwise: Mother’s used copy of Kenilworth (Sir Walter Scott); Great Aunt Laura’s copy of Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush (Ian Maclaren); Daddy’s The Water Babies (Charles Kingsley), a 1915 Christmas gift from his Aunt Marian Ball; Blanche’s travel journal, along with a gentleman’s calling card. (Click to enlarge.)

My Great Aunt Blanche’s handwriting is not a bit spidery. I have her Travel Notes Abroad: My Own Record, of her trip home from Manila, where she had visited her brother, first sailing to Hong Kong, Canton, Macao, and Singapore, then west to Rangoon, Calcutta, Madras, Colombo, on to Port Said, Cairo,  through the Mediterranean,  across the pond to New York and finally south to Thomasville. This was 1913, aboard a series of steamships including the exotic sounding Elephanta. I am sorry to report that Blanche, after whom I am named and whom I am supposed to resemble, did not tell a riveting story. That is, the bits I can make out. Her handwriting runs so straight across the lineless pages that she might have used a ruler, but the penmanship is a thicket of letters that I can decipher only in short bursts of concentration, and, as it begins in a querulous tone, complaining of the rough trip and comparing herself, “one heart-broken girl,” to the “hordes of lesser persons who knew not the pangs of separation,” I was immediately put off. I could argue that Blanche said no such thing, that my inability to decode her spiky cursive has unfairly soured me on her account. But there is this passage, written during her time in Egypt:

Then we went to a Kopt village, through narrow, dirty, smelly, dilapidated streets to see the church, in the basement of which, Mary and the Christ child hid when they fled into Egypt from Pharaoh. ‘Tis hard to believe that Christ cared for those people if they were as dirty as they are now.  

Blanche, how could you!

Last year I embarked on a de-cluttering binge. I had grown tired of seeing books stacked three deep, books stuffed horizontally above other books, books strewn all over tables and desks and threatening floor space. I had to decide: what stays, what goes? You can imagine the pain this caused to me, the Great Reader.

In my house, everybody reads.

In my house, everybody reads.

I use that epithet with a spoonful of sarcasm. My first grade teacher did not think I was a great reader. In fact, she threatened to hold me back, but, knowing that my mother was a teacher, she must have figured I came from good stock, and so she promoted me (socially?) with the proviso that I enroll in the local library’s summer reading program. The fact is, I wanted to read, but I was a shy little thing, and the classroom was a wild place, whenever the teacher stepped out of the room. I would hide under a table while other children, mostly unruly boys, ran around whooping and jumping over furniture. Back in nursery school, while sitting near the workers who spelled out much of their conversation, I had secretly learned to spell. I proudly picked up one word: N-O. I waited and waited till we’d learn this word in the Dick and Jane reader, so that I could trot out my impressive knowledge, but I suppose Dick and Jane were such darling and dear children, this wasn’t a word they used. Lucky for me, that summer I discovered The Landmark Books, and before long, I was sneaking novels off my parents’ shelves. Not always understanding them, mind you. Think The Fires of Spring by James Michener and Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr. Later, in high school, I naively believed I should read the classics just because someone had declared them to be great. But suffering my way through The Rise of Silas Lapham, a novel concerning the rise and fall of a paint magnate, by William Dean Howells, quickly disabused me of that notion. Life is just too short.

Back to de-cluttering. I finally decided on these criteria for which books to keep: those that are important to own, even if I never read them (sound familiar?), such as Ulysses and Midnight’s Children; those that I have loved, still love and plan read again and maybe again (Pride and Prejudice, Light in August, The Surrendered); books waiting their turn on the nightstand; books that I might use in research; books that cross boundaries of subject matter and genre. In short, books with staying power.

Joe's bookcases are a work of art.

Joe’s bookcases are a work of art.

After many trips to the thrift store, I have purged my shelves of the dross and the ephemeral. Now space has opened up, making room for something new!

Except that I will be moving soon, moving from my small cottage with many bookcases to a much larger home with only one bookcase. And sharing this home with Joe, my partner and soon-to-be husband. He has more books than I do—and he refuses to cull. The saving grace is that he has discovered a latent talent for building bookcases, beautiful bookcases, bookcases of my dreams.


Now, Dear Reader, it’s your turn. I’d love to hear your thoughts about home libraries in general or about your library in particular.

16 thoughts on “My Library/ Myself

  1. I truly enjoyed reading this and your charming stories about the books, Blanche, and your introduction to reading. I know your pain about culling books from a rather large library. I’m moving soon, too, within the next two or three months, and, though I’ve already taken many books to Goodwill, I’m now down to deciding which of my remaining wonderful books are expendable, Alas!

  2. What fun to read about another’s book journey. I’ll bet I’m not the only one who remembered her own by reading yours. Wouldn’t that be a great idea for a book club—to take turns sharing each other’s histories with books. I too have an aunt whose trip diaries would not endear her to anyone, though not quite as shockingly as your Blanche. Have you ever had your signed editions appraised? Sounds like you have some great ones. Loved knowing how you organize your bookshelves. There are probably as many ways to organize home libraries as there are home libraries. Great post. Enjoyed it tremendously.

  3. I have just finished a major purge too, with a back-seat-of-my-car-full of books for the Friends of the Library. I’ve decided only to keep a copy of my top ten all time favorites and a reference book or two. But it’s interesting. Many years ago, after we all graduated and flew the nest my parents unloaded their library, one we had enjoyed immensely over the years. We were all shocked and disappointed when we came home for a visit. I remember asking “how could you?” But not I understand.

    • Thanks for the comment, Rona.

      Culling my mother’s library to sell her house after she had to move to a nursing home, now there was a painful experience. I still rue some of the books I let get away.

  4. What a great post! I enjoyed it tremendously. And lucky you, to be upsizing rather than downsizing. When my husband and I moved from a house to a much smaller apartment, the question of Where to Put the Books loomed large — and still does. Just today we had to clear a few dozen out of the guest room so that our weekend guest would be able to pick her way from door to bed! Good luck with your move, and tell Joe to get crackin’ on those bookshelves.

  5. I enjoyed reading about your books. Like most writers, I am a book lover too. Alas, I am out of room and have resorted to stacks and stacks in nooks and crannies. I love, read, and collect a great variety of books. One can never have enough space for books, or enough books for that matter!

    • Thanks, Janet.

      I learned to cull when I decided to put my house on the market and started to look at my space through a buyer’s eyes. Didn’t like what I saw–clutter and more clutter. I can’t blame the books. There were plenty of knickknacks all over the shelves in front of the books.

      We’ll see how long this new me lasts once I move and start unpacking!

  6. Books here—books there—books everywhere, some in boxes which do absolutely no good to anyone hidden away, but I can’t bear to part with special ones. My small bookcases are overflowing, and still, I acquire more books. Chris, you must find time to read, “Midnight’s Children”—- a novel I thoroughly enjoyed and plan to reread soon. BTW love your post.

  7. Maybe your post will nudge me into doing something about the
    massive number of books in my condo. They are here, there, and
    everywhere! Once upon a time, my solution was too many books?
    Buy more bookcases! Alas, I am still overflowing. Working in a
    bookstore does have its downside–so many lovely books I want
    to bring home and read–it’s an ongoing dilemma.

    • Haha Susan! I recognize the problem. After only a 4-yr stint of working in a bookstore long ago, I STILL have books on my shelf I hope to read but have yet to get to. Can’t give them up till I’ve read. But then I can never give up a book I’ve read, either.

    • It’s painful at first, but once you start serious culling, you’ll feel better. Think of all the others who could benefit from your castoffs. And…you’ll free up space for new favorites. 🙂

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