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.
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.
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.
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.