Sunday, June 23, 2013

Book Shelves and Their (Dis)Contents

I have just finished Susan Hill's excellent bookish memoir Howard's End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading From Home. If I wrote my own version of such a memoir, it would be called Stephen Sondheim is on the Floor And He Has Lots of Company. Ms. Hill wrote this book because she discovered, while looking for a copy of Howard’s End, that she owned many books she had not read.

I took up her book because I needed solace as I once again try to tame my own collection. My husband has announced that we need new carpets and that the books and shelves will have to be moved. He has also suggested that I might think about getting rid of a tome or several.

I am a bit daft when it comes to buying books. I once told Robin Hathaway that if authors knew how easy it was to sell me a book, they would fight to sit next to me at mystery conferences.

Alas, books require housing. When I lived at Coles House, I was the only boarder to be allowed two book shelves. The good folks at Coles House initially felt that I should make do with one and put any overflow in the basement.

“The basement!” cried a friend of mine who threw herself into the discussion. “That’s like asking Stephanie to put her closest friends in the basement.” I nodded solemnly in agreement and the second bookcase was mine.

When I moved to a studio apartment in Center City, I bought sturdy canning shelves that were wide enough to allow me to put two rows of books on each shelf. But they filled up over the years and pretty soon my books were read and returned to the shopping bags in which I brought them home.

Then I married and my husband cheerfully moved all my books to our condo. Now I had more than one room to fill with books. Joy unrestrained filled my breast. I could not only put the books on shelves but also impose some sort of order on them.

Then we planned the move to Collingswood. My mother in law agreed to talk to the movers when they came to do their estimate.

“What about the books?” I asked her

She chuckled softly. “They say you have 90 boxes of books here. It’s $1,500 just to move the books.”

So my husband decided he would move the books. He would call me at work and leave messages: “Dickens is in Collingswood." or “Ian Rankin is in his new home.”

We’ve lived in Collingswood for almost 10 years now and the books again overflow the shelves. I thought my acquisition of a Kindle would mean fewer traditional books.

I’m sure the Kindle has made a difference but when people come to work on the house they still say, “Gee, I guess you folks really like to read.” A friend of mine who came to visit looked at my shelves and said to her husband, “See, you complain about all the books I have. Doesn’t this make me look like a model of restraint?”

Each Sunday I spend just a bit of time going through my books So many of them bring back memories because of where I bought them or where I was when I first read them. Some of them remind me of the people who recommended them or of people to whom I lent them.

I own a very battered copy of Anna Karenina. It’s a mass market paperback that was produced when PBS did a dramatization on Masterpiece Theater. It strikes me now that the translation isn’t very good and the pages fall out as I turn them. But I can’t get rid of it. It was given to me as a Christmas gift by a woman I met at Coles House. We were both serious readers and delighted to find each other. She had a job but certainly was not making much money. I was so touched by her thoughtfulness. I took the book on my train ride home to see my mother. Amtrak was doing major work along the Northeast corridor at the time and I still remember the bumpy ride as I read.

What people have in their medicine chests is of little interest to me but I always check out their bookshelves. Susan Hill manages to find on her shelves just 40 books that she could be contented with for the rest of her life. (Though it’s not clear that she’s sending the rest to the local church jumble sale).

Maybe some day I’ll be able to show similar maturity, restraint and self-sacrifice, but not just yet.

Stephanie Patterson


  1. I had a friend whose new husband demanded that she get rid of her books. The marriage broke up after a year. When last I visited her she was living happily with full bookshelves on all four walls of every room in her house. Don't know what became of the husband.

  2. Stephanie, I do believe there is a germ in books that makes them multiply... I often carry a load of books that I don't have room for a block over to the 92nd St. Y - they have a space now where orphaned books can find a home . Problem: when I get home, a few hours later, I swear the damn books have multiplied and there are more books than when I left the apartment!! Is there a doctor in the house, to quote our friend Robin ??? T.J. Straw

  3. "Look! There's no more room! Tell me where there's room?!!" My wife says fortnightly. Her last gasp is:"Okay, Okay, just don't buy any more." I agree, but I lie. I found it easier to forego alcohol and cigars than not buy another book. Borders shut down recently in Albany (a store that felt like I was home in my den): a real tragedy but also a favor to me. Never liked Barnes & Noble. It would have worked out except for The Book House, the biggest independent up here, and Dave's Dove Street Used Books on my corner. Still, I did let a book seller from Schenectady peruse the stacks and buy 130 volumes (not all that he thirsted for but I was like an oak). He'll not be invited back. Enough is enough!

  4. I just got back from New York City and my husband willingly squired me to Housing Works, Mysterious Book Store and Bluestockings and I managed to leave a portion of my paycheck at every one of them. We also saw "Matilda:The Musical" which is all about books.

    Thelma, Yes I do believe books mate. I have experienced the phenomenon you describe.

    Bob, Your story reminds of part of a quiz that was part of a book called Biblioholism. It was an addiction checklist and asked the following question: "When you've spent hours at a bookstore do you lie and tell your spouse you've been in a bar?"

    And Kate before I met my husband I dated a guy who shouted (as we were breaking up)
    "I NEVER liked books; I just pretended to because you're so nuts about them." I shudder to think what would have happened had I married him. (By the way, those book shelves look scarily like mine)