Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What our bookshelves say about us

We recently celebrated our family’s annual New Year’s Day Festival Clean-out, an energetic annual clutter purge accomplished to the driving beat of power tunes. Though usually we tackle our closets, this was the Year of the Bookshelf. Our daughter got in the act too, wisely perceiving that a day of sorting, organizing and cleaning the upstairs bookshelves would calm her college application angst.

Around this time a Sister of the Quill forwarded an article that made me think about our books. The article covered someone who used books solely as décor, and this clever sister suggested a Plumtree baddie patterned on him; anyone who so misused books would have to be villainous. A great idea!

I began to wonder about our motivation for wall after wall of books in our home, on every level and nearly every room? Were we like the villainous collector who displayed them for appearance only?

I took a good hard look at our books as we disassembled and reassembled our shelves. The first task was to replace the mantel books I’d removed to make way for the advent calendar. There was no hiding from the fact: these twelve books were chosen for the gold on their bindings. Uh-oh...

I tried to evaluate them as a stranger might. Their bindings were works of art, like paintings one might put on the wall. But they passed another test: their insides were art as well: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling; The Silver Chalice, by Costain; The Cornerstone, by Zoe Oldenbourg; The Works of Stevenson; The Works of Gautier (okay, I admit to not even knowing who this is, but my mother gave me the beautiful gold-stamped leather volume); A Gentle Madness, by Basbanes (every bibliophile’s favorite); London, by Peter Ackroyd; and The Illuminator, a historical bibliomystery that helped inspire my current book.

Opposite this mantel is the real family bookshelf, a true wall of books. There is an entire shelf devoted to the novels of Diane Mott Davidson, my patron saint of fiction writing. Just looking at this shelf is an inspiration; she holds the quadruple titles of kindest mentor, most dedicated professional, most voracious reader and most generous giver of books (in addition to other titles). Once I asked her how she could possibly read so much. She said breezily, “That’s what writers do!” Many years later, I get it: Writers. Must. Read. Everything. It is what we do.

Moving along that same line of shelves, there’s a Bill Bryson section that kicked off an invaluable non-fiction reading spree for our oldest daughter. My much-thumbed college thesis books on Willa Cather sit side by side with books on women of the West, and women writing the West. Included in two of these, Leanin’ Into the Wind, are essays by Sister of the Quill Shannon Baker.

Immediately above and below these are shelves on London, English royal history, Colorado hiking/wildflowers/birds, a cheap complete Dickens recalling a day trip to Hay-on-Wye, a childhood set of World Book Encyclopedias, the Left Behind series, all of Jan Karon, American and British political history and speeches, typography, writing, contemporary literary book-club category fiction, and more precious works by my Sisters of the Quill, Soliloquy by Janet Fogg and Ashes of the Red Heifer by Shannon Baker. I can’t wait for the day, not far away, when I slide Karen Lin’s multiple brilliant works onto the shelf beside them.

I see now that the wall o’books fills multiple roles. It’s meaningful memorabilia, it’s storage for useful books we want to revisit, and yes, it is beautiful.

The sets make especially attractive bursts of color. The red 1950s World Book Encyclopedias evoke the distinctive scent of their pages, and the memory of school assignments done with them in my childhood home. My sister’s name is written in the front of one she must have taken to school once, in the careful hand of a twelve-year-old. I smile ruefully at the hole drilled partway through the cover of the Volume H, the top of a stack I used to brace something while drilling a hole for one of the girls—another school assignment.

There are other reminders of our origins: my father’s Boy Scout Handbook from the year 1935; a treasured English literature anthology from the college my mother never thought she’d attend as a farmer’s daughter, and in it the poem Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe, unconsciously memorized in childhood, which still sends shivers up my spine. Up high sits the thick Iain Pears novel given me by a college friend, An Instance of the Fingerpost, which helped inspire the book that has enriched the last eight years of my life. There’s the paperback teen Bible my sister gave me that helped cement my faith at age fifteen, and the book of O. Henry short stories from my other sister that inspired a love of reading. The shelves dedicated to the ocean and sailing make me think of my heroic husband, who piloted us through sailing trips in foreign oceans. Nestled alongside these is the copy of Moby Dick I paraphrased for two little girls before a memorable trip to Nantucket.

Enough! Suffice it to say that I want to keep these precious memories close, so a casual glance might graze them at any time, and pass them on as heirlooms. They’re more than books, they’re our lives; a record of where we’ve been, and emotional and spiritual support for the journey. - Storm Petrel


  1. I only keep the books that really speak to me. Maybe it's because we move every so many years. I don't know. But those I don't need, I donate to the library.

  2. Goodness! Books are my life, but I do try to keep them winnowed out so that I can have breathing room too. I have shelves of uncategorized fiction, including books I've read and those I haven't. There's a small poetry-sized shelf for the volumes of poems. There are several rambling shelves of travel guides and travel memoirs; all the destinations are mixed up: Egypt beside Ireland beside Singapore beside Belize. There are the wellness books and the personal growth books. The green living books are on my loftiest shelf. And there's a delicious space for cookbooks!

  3. I'm not sure what I would do without my favorites, the books I've read and re-read so many times that it feels like homecoming when I pull one off the shelf. When I'm tired or cranky or blue, I go home and visit those I love...

  4. It is true our books reveal much about our personalities! Storm Petrel, you are brilliant and your knowledge is vast and diverse. You have deep sensitivity and loyalty beyond measure. Your taste is eclectic and exquisite. I keep very few books. I love my Kindle, hardly read anything twice. Pretty revealing.

  5. A beautifully written and thoughtful post! As a former librarian, I've taken it upon myself to keep our books in a semblance of order, various collections on bookshelves all over the house--fiction and poetry in one room (alphabetized by author), philosophy, psychology, and spirituality in another, etc. And now that I'm a writer with a lot of published friends, the collections keep expanding!

  6. If I kept all the books I bought over the years, there would be no room in my house for furniture. I do have three bookcases full, though, and love a variety of TBRs so I always have something that suits my mood. Very nice post, and very nice blog.

  7. Thank you Patricia. We'd love to have you visit again. We're all about writing and friendship. What better combination can sisters of the quill ask for? Inkpot