Between the Shelves

Les Liaisons Dangereuses.  The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893: A Photographic Record (a Dover original). Just Kids, by Patti Smith, with its winsome pair on the cover. The lilting new version of Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.

My stacks. A cross-section.

goode vrouw

I always get kind of alarmed when I hear about people who organize their bookshelves perfectly by color. Or by the height of the spine. Or even by subject. I guess I feel kind of abashed because my shelves look like someone just threw a bunch of volumes into them and the way they landed is the way they stuck.

I expect the stately, big public libraries I visit to be properly arranged. At the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, I insist that the chit I hand in for a research item lead unfailingly  to a number on the overhead board, a 155, say, that corresponds to the book I will then pick up at the wood-framed window. I don’t like to wait, even in the lovely caramel-smelling ambience of the Rose Reading Room, where I can spend my time gazing up at the fluffy clouds floating in azure. And, though I love wandering the mysterious stacks at Columbia University’s Butler Library, I expect to set my hands on the thing cited in the catalogue where  and when I want it. As with the following super-polished domestic book sanctuaries, everything is organized.

one library

three library

Not so at my home.

My own library, as I said, is a shambles. Gardens of the Gilded Age is wedged next to A Confederacy of Dunces, which is neighbor to The Goode Vrouw of Mana-ha-ta, by Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer (Scribner’s, 1898, signed by the author). The Goode Vrouw was a priceless source to me for everything I’ve written about Dutch colonial women. Some of my favorite books, like the latter, are end of the line library volumes, dumped when the branch needed room for contemporary titles. Some are by friends: Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World, by foremost authority Bart Plantenga. On my shelf, it sits somewhat awkwardly next to Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind.

Living in the Cabin, where every inch of space is precious, meant giving up dozens of cartons of books.  Some to the library, some to the Strand (for precious little resale value), some for pennies at the yard sale. Painful as it was to do it — and with boxes still in storage — we survived,  managing to to keep, say, one in twenty. There is a bookcase about the size of a coffin along the wall of the living room. That is all. Are those, the books favored enough to keep, the ones that I read? Do I turn and re-turn the pages, hold them, go back to them?


Library hardbacks in their glossy sheaths, the dozens of e-books that hide themselves in my Kindle, the occasional irresistible find on the table at a great independent book store. Those go by my bedside, not my winnowed, cherished chums on the bookshelves. Occasionally I’ll return to Tristram Shandy (the first novel I really fell for with, in high school), or one of the two brilliant Alices, Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas or The Diary of Alice James. I might dive down into the disordered waves and come up with a gem. But otherwise the books on the cabin’s shelves — in chaos — are only to keep, to have, to save, to nurse a taste for, the way you might keep a bar of divinely dense chocolate in the refrigerator for the day you need to take a bite.

It needn’t be perfect to be delicious.

two library

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