I was recently on some website reading a post analyzing the future of paper vs e-publishing (probably in relation to the iPad release), and I saw a comment from another reader who implied that the only reason anyone would keep real books around anymore was to show off how smart they were.
I found this amusing because of the reverse echo of Paul Sogge’s witty post on how e-readers would make it hard for people to do this very thing, especially if they wanted to document their social media guru-ship by filling their office shelves with books about Twitter. (I responded to him via Twitter that I could at least read dumb books in public on a Kindle without anyone knowing. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could get a Kindle that would flash smart-sounding titles, like Ulysses, across the back, while you were actually reading Twilight?)
Well, okay. I do sort of think I’m smart. It’s not totally my fault. I was told this from an early age, partly because I was so good at reading. But I’ve also had occasion to doubt myself over the years, and it does look like I’m going downhill. Even if I was smart at some point, I never did get rich, so I don’t have a house with which to show off how brilliant I might be, if I still were.
That is, my library isn’t half as impressive as Neil Gaiman’s.
If exhibitionism were my sole motivation for owning books, I could brag online, via Shelfari, a site that enables users to build virtual bookshelves. So I wouldn’t need to keep actual books around, taking up all my wall space and making it so hard for me to show off my great taste in art, not to mention my exquisite sensibilities regarding vinyl albums.
However, once in a while I have a party, and on those occasions, I do enjoy the spirited conversations that spring up around my books. I’m not sure this is showing off so much as facilitating. In any case, these discussions definitely wouldn’t happen if all I had were lousy little e-reader to pass around like an appetizer.
Years ago, a friend, the Canadian writer and performance artist Susan Scott, told me, “I’d get lost without my bookshelves. When I forget who I am, I go and stand in front of them.” At that time, she and I were both reading and sharing a lot of spiritual geographies. Memoirs that were tied up with landscape—Teresa Jordan, Gretel Erhlich, Linda Hasselstrom, Kathleen Norris, Wallace Stegner, Rick Bass, Annie Dillard, James Galvin, Sharman Apt Russell, Ivan Doig, Sharon Butala, Terry Tempest Williams, Donald Hall.
Maybe that sounds alien to some people—losing sight of who you are in the heap of stuff you’ve read. But yesterday the New Yorker offered to psychoanalyze photos of people’s bookshelves, and I had to post a comment about that. Which shelf should I send a picture of? The one containing books about Russian history? Arthurian arcana? General mythology? Native American history and religion? Comparative religion and early Christianity? Psychology and brain science? Physics? Children’s literature? Serial killers? Science fiction? Writing advice? American literature? International literature, organized by country? The relationship books? The ones on grief? Poetry?
Long ago, I learned not to go back to graduate school every time I got interested in something new. Though I have often been tempted.
Of course I get lost. Of course I need to stand in front of my shelves to remember who I am. It’s not about how many books are on each shelf, but about the journey each book represents. The period in my life when I was exploring that topic, all the way back to when I was eight and reading everything I could find on woolly mammoths. And Nancy Drew.
Then there are the bookshelves themselves. The ones built in to my study walls—thrown up in a hurry by my brother after a long remodel project when he really needed to be elsewhere. Montana, in fact. These shelves didn’t turn out the way I imagined them, but when I look at them, I remember how hard the two of us worked to make my new house livable after my wrenching divorce, how much I needed my brother’s support, how torn he was because he loved my husband at least as much as he loved me, how much he helped me despite his anger at me, and how tired we both were as we came to the end.
And then came the beautiful cherry shelves he installed above the piano in the living room a few years later; the healing between us is evident, at least to me.
There’s the battered old lawyer’s bookcase, which used to be in my grandfather’s study. (I never met that grandfather.) When my alcoholic father died, I inherited the shelves, their glass shattered years before, a tennis racket, an X-acto Knife, and several rolls of duct tape. Seriously. That’s it. The shelves’ scars, a legacy from my dad, as well as from his father and from his father’s father, speak as loudly as do the contents of the shelves—a dusty set of Harvard Classics from 1926, the year my father was born.
A rickety oak shelf holds all the seminal books from my childhood, the ones I shared with my son, as well as the ones he refused to hear, which I hold in trust for potential grandchildren.
Finally, there is the absent bookcase, the one my first husband built for me. It was perfectly sized for a wall in the study I loved, in the house I loved, in the town I loved, in the valley I loved, in the life I loved.
It exactly held a certain subset of my scholarly books that fit together in such a way as to represent a certain section of my mind. Perhaps a piece that’s never been whole since that part of my life ended. That shelf now holds the books of my ex-husband’s new wife.
So, to the guy who thinks book owners are a bunch of show-offs, I don’t agree that’s fair, or precise. We’re just pretty un-Zen. We find it reassuring to stand in front of our shelves, from time to time, and think, oh, yeah, I remember how it felt to be 20 and studying the Soviet Union, thinking I was going to straighten out communications between our countries. And I remember when I was writing about the Anasazi and thought I would explain what happened to them better than anyone else could. And this is what it felt like when I decided that King Arthur and Jesus Christ were not discoverable as individuals.
Rather than showing anything off, I remind myself again and again of how much I’ve tried to learn, how far short I’ve always fallen, and how much there still is to know.
I’d be lost without my shelves.