If you want to understand who a person is, look at their book shelves. It was no surprise when I recently found rows of mystery paperbacks on a friend’s shelves as I helped clear out her stash, but it was a surprise to find the complete set of Elena Ferrante from My Brilliant Friend to The Story of the Lost Child. It was no surprise to find Vogue fashion but the complete set of Playbills took me back. Not so much what we read, but what we save after we read often tell stories about what we value and perhaps what we dream about.
Realizing this, I wondered if I should reconfigure my own shelves. I wouldn’t want to be misunderstood by the books I left behind. Maybe it was time to ditch Margaret Dods’ The Housewife’s Manual or my mother’s 1933 copy of The Modern Handbook for Girls. Harris’ Twenty Minute Retreats could stay as well as The Thurber Carnival. But maybe the complete set of Harry Potter could make room for other books. The Shaker Handbook, a gift to thank me for making a speech years ago and the Annapolitan Quality of Life, with an article on my younger days, remind me of when I was more productive, so they will stay – along with all the cookbooks and treasured children’s books. I still smile when I look at the cover of the old Free To Be You And Me; it seems more anachronistic in its advice than The Modern Handbook for Girls.
Once upon a time I had a wall of books, dating from childhood, through college and graduate school, with whispers of career days, and on to the luxury of reading whatever I wanted to read. Sadly, the wall is gone, replaced by only a few shelves. One shelf has the current reads, rotating with library books and those books I could not get out of a bookstore without buying – all regularly replaced. But the other shelves have those old friends I cannot part with – telling the story of who I am.
But not everyone will understand. Someday, someone will clean out my shelves and wonder why I saved W.B. Yeats: Romantic Visionary. They will think I loved the poetry, but, alas, the book was only a reminder of a Dublin adventure.
I recently had a similar experience. My home office was overrun with books, so I had to donate some to the library. Such hard decisions to be made! Absolutely kept my mother’s 1941 edition of The Viking Book of Poetry of the English-Speaking World and the 1936 volume of The Best Loved Poems of the American People, both books that, in the early days of their marriage, my parents read to each other at night.
Yes, those old treasures are irreplaceable. Wonderful to attach a memory to a book.