if only my books could talk ...

While I have moved past the demise of the typewriter, the turntable, and the tape deck, I cannot allow myself to believe that we will ever be entirely without books. I love books, how they look and feel and smell and how it was that they arrived on someone’s bookshelf – an hour spent perusing the contents of a bookcase will tell you much of what you need to know of the owner’s personality, past-times, and passions.

Loving books is one thing, but it was not until recently that I developed more than a passing interest in the physical space they occupy – my bookcases. A paperback copy of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native had, for sixteen years, leaned up against a second or third-hand copy of What to Expect when You Were Expecting passed along to me when I was, you know, expecting. For almost a decade, a copy of The Good Friday Peace Agreement signed for me by former Taoiseach John Bruton when he visited Phoenix, had been sandwiched unceremoniously between Bob Dylan’s Bringing it all Back Home LP and a large illustrated Beowulf (unfortunately not the version translated by Seamus Heaney). It was time to bring some order.

I believe it then to be quite simply true that books have their own very personal feeling about their place on the shelves. They like to be close to suitable companions, and I remember once on coming into my library that I was persistently disturbed by my ‘Jane Eyre’. Going up to it, wondering what was the matter with it, restless because of it, I only after a morning’s uneasiness discovered that it had been placed next to my Jane Austens, and anyone who remembers how sharply Charlotte criticized Jane will understand why this would never do.

~ Hugh Walpole, ‘These Diversions: Reading’ (1926)

When it comes to arranging books on the shelves, I need someone with a good eye and zero tolerance for books they know I haven’t read.  Someone like my mother who, when cleaning out a closet – mine not hers –  brings a take-no-prisoners approach. If it hasn’t been worn in a year, or if it is hanging in there for “sentimental reasons,” (like she bought it for me in 1987), then it has to go in the big black bag which will then go to a charitable organization or a consignment store. I have often thought about hiring a professional to organize my closet, but I fear I will end up like one of those poor women on a program on The Learning Channel - mortified, in my own front yard, by the sight of the contents of my closet spread out on the grass, and then judged by a TV audience and an energetic host hell-bent on figuring out how much good it would do me, if I stopped buying jeans, handbags, and blue dresses. How I love a blue dress. Any shade of blue will do – teal, robins-egg, navy, cobalt, cerulean, turquoise. And I love jeans. Also blue. I am beginning to remind myself of Alicia, the wife of Doc “Moonlight” Graham who was played by Burt Lancaster in the movie, Field of Dreams. Alicia loved blue hats, and when Doc died in 1965, his office closet was filled with all the blue hats he hadn’t yet given her. 

No, the literati are not coming to party at my house, but like Independent columnist John Walsh’s friend Bella, I am acutely aware that “your collection of books can say terrible things about you.” Unlike Bella, I don’t rub shoulders with celebrities of the publishing world; nonetheless, I’m always a bit worried about the absence – and inclusion of certain books on my shelves. 

It all started with The Great Gatsby. The movie version. My best friend and I went to see it last weekend, and we loved it, except she couldn’t remember the plot entirely, because she hadn’t read the book for years. I had re-read it last year during my PMP (Post-Mastectomy Period), so Daisy, Gatsby, Nick, and the over-the-top parties were still young and fresh in my head. As we performed our post-mortem on Hollywood’s version of the film, we ventured off into a discussion of F. Scott Fitzgerald and, Ernest Hemingway, during which I admitted that, in fact, I have never read anything by Ernest Hemingway. Never. I suppose to make me feel better, she told me she hated Dickens. And then we both confessed that we hate Moby Dick. I went on to admit that I don’t like Les Miserables, and I even fell asleep during a performance of themusical version. I know. I’m treading dangerous waters now. It feels almost criminal to say out loud that the longest running musical leaves me cold, and downright treasonous to admit that I think James Joyce is, well, overrated. To my shame, I have never finished Ulysees, nor am I sure that I ever really started it, given what I deemed too many starting points within its pages. Of Joyce’s “Dubliners” I only like “The Dead.” Were it not for Brodie’s Notes, which I imagine are roughly equivalent to the American Cliffs Notes, I don’t imagine I could have answered  a single question about E.M. Forster’s Room with a View or Howard’s End. I do not like Virginia Woolf. I might even be a little afraid of her. I think the same might be true for George Eliot, who, until I was in college, assumed to be male. Then there’s Jane Austen. I know. It’s sacrilege. But Emma wore me out, and I didn’t pick up Pride and Prejudice until my PMP (see above). Even then, in the lingering haze from three days of Dilaudid coursing through my system, I just couldn’t understand what was so great about Mr. Darcy.  Oblivious to what has been coined The Darcy Effect, there must be something wrong with me.

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