Last month, my husband, daughter and I moved from the lovely and rather large Victorian house that we rented for three years. Three years is the longest I’ve lived anywhere in 20 years, and I was settled and happy. Finances didn’t allow us to buy the house when our landlords put it on the market, so we bought a quaint and smaller house that we could afford that I am finally settling into.
Like many old New England homes, our rental had a built-in floor to ceiling book case that held my 300+ books. As I added more, some had to lay on top of those that were aligned perfectly, spine-out, always alphabetical by author. I liked the jumbled and full look of my shelves and loved standing in front of them when I needed something new to read.
I have amassed many books along the trajectory of my life, most of them for free. When I was in college I worked in a wonderful little bookstore in a small, boxy, two-story mall, the only retail job I’ve ever had. I worked on Friday nights while Happy Hour raged above at a bar where students drank beer out of fishbowls. I knew when the deejay needed a break because “American Pie,” would play for 8 minutes and 33 seconds, a bunch of drunken 18-21-yr olds singing along.
While I still worked there, the owner told me that he was closing the store for good, and that I could take anything that I wanted. Anything. At that time I think I fancied myself a bit of an intellect and grabbed some philosophy and a lot of “literature.” I’m pretty sure I still have many of them, unread, waiting until my brain has the patience to take them all in.
After college I got a job in academic publishing that involved traveling to trade shows where I would sit and smile at a booth in the basement exhibit halls of decent hotels with our key new titles displayed proudly on white metal bookstands. The titles were at the forefront of subjects like linguistics and random esoteric topics of history and religion that I knew absolutely nothing about, the conference attendees stodgy and tweedy professors.
There were mainstream publishers exhibiting books as well and I became friends with a guy my age who worked for the umbrella publisher of all of the most popular trade imprints still standing at the time, before each had become gobbled up, like a game of Pac-Man, by the remaining behemoths of the publishing universe. Before packing up at the end of the conference he would let me amass a box of anything, again, ANYTHING that I wanted, and would pack it up and send it to me. These titles probably make up 70% of my collection. For many years after, he would send me first editions of books that he knew I would like, my most prized being a signed copy of “Maus” by Art Spiegelman with his little self-portrait on the inside page.
Last month, the night before our movers came, I stood in front of my bookcase, finding myself in tears as I took each book down and put them in a box, still keeping the order they had been in for three years. Our new house has no built-ins and for the time being, no room to have any constructed, so tucking them away in boxes knowing they’d end up in our basement was surprisingly very tragic for me. It’s not pretension that makes me want to keep them public, but to me, books make a home, make me whole.
In the house where I spent my first 13 years, my parent’s marriage still intact, my father’s bookcase was a source of wonder and intrigue for me. It was in our den, a room I spent endless hours in, adjacent to our brick fireplace. My mother wasn’t much of a reader so the collection had to have reflected my father’s curiosities and interests. He has always been a brilliant seeker of knowledge and at 83 he keeps going and going, taking classes and still reading endlessly.
I don’t know how the books were arranged but the spines and shapes and sizes of the books were a fixture in the landscape of my childhood. Some of the titles made no sense to me, in particular a book titled “Barefoot Boy With Cheek.” I pondered endlessly over what that could POSSIBLY mean, and with no internet or Wikipedia I think I just relinquished any possibility of figuring it out. There was a boxed-set of world-religions, each with a different colored cover, including Islam and Judaism, that still sits on his bookshelf in Los Angeles where he has lived for over 30 years. There was a biography of Abba Eban, that I don’t even think I realized was someone’s name. “Helter Skelter,” “The Exorcist,” and “The Joy of Sex” were tucked away in a piece of furniture in a hallway and I discovered them at a fairly young age, and those are the ones I bothered to read.
My father has always championed knowledge. My sister and I are avid readers always looking forward to the next great book. Since my daughter has been of reading age, he has taken note of the New York Times bestseller list for her age group, and about 5 times a year she gets a box of four or five titles that he has picked for her. She tears open those boxes with relish and when we moved, we had to buy her a bigger bookcase that she is incredibly proud of.
And Dad, in case you never got around to reading it, here it is: