The mental shelf

Essayists, I suppose, are by nature book-lovers. They must be: the world is full of essays about books. But lovers of books also tend to be connoisseurs of something else without which their world would cave in about their ears. I refer, of course, to bookshelves - about which surprisingly little has been written.

I don't remember just when it was that bookshelves came into my experience. But I rather suspect they came before the books did. As a teenager, I remember perusing the annual spring booksale held under the elms on our town common - thousands of volumes of glorious and awful writing spread indiscriminately on trestle tables and picked over by the learned, the penniless, and the astonished. I was in the latter two camps, and what most caught my fancy were some heavy leather-bound volumes. One was a complete Wordsworth - which, if I had known then what I have since learned about the copious servings of indifferent verse he dished out late in life, I might have left on the table. Another was a beautifully-wrought complete Longfellow, its heavy gilt-edged pages lavish with etchings. I took them home, only to find that I had neither the inclination to read nor the place to display them. Unwilling to remedy the first problem, I set about resolving the second. In that way I came to build my first bookshelf - a small affair let into the wall of a basement room where I retired to listen to records and escape the July heat.

Once it was done, however, it presented what should have been a perfectly foreseeable problem. It was largely empty. I longed to see it filled with other rich and rare volumes - to reassure me that, for all my schoolboy interest in the world of things, I could still pay court at the castle of the intellect. So began the search. I still have some of its results: a battered Sherlock Holmes, a nice (although new) leather Shelley, and a miscellaneous assortment of other things bought only partly for their contents.

Soon the shelf was full, and my problem became that of thousands of other booklovers: lack of shelf space. So I found myself paying attention not only to other people's libraries (which I find fascinating: few things tell you more about a person) but to the ways they keep them. I remember professors' homes, pilastered up with white-painted floor-to-ceiling shelves. And there were the tiny houses of writers where pine boards sagging with books clung to every crevice in hallways and guest rooms. I saw summer houses with mildewing books stored in drawers, basements with books in orange-crates, students' rooms with books stacked up in corners.

And, of course, I saw the bricks-and-board shelf - or, rather, I partly saw it. Unfortunately, I didn't look very carefully - although, when I got to graduate school, I set about trying to build one. Out I went to buy the bricks. ''New or used?'' I was asked. Being the novice that I was, I thought used would be cheaper. Not only did I pay dearly for them, but I found that they came all stuck about with such dollops of old mortar that they would hardly stack. I stacked them anyway, boards in between, up to the ceiling of our apartment - until one day, leaping from my chair to a friend's horrified ''Look out!'' I only just managed to avoid being buried as the entire library tottered, tilted, and tumbled to the floor.

I was reminded of all this recently as, once again, I set about building bookshelves. I filled a wall with them - and realized as I went that even that much space would not hold all the volumes that had sifted into my possession and remained still cartoned in the garage. And for the first time, I found myself wondering whether it was all worthwhile. Before, bookshelves had always seemed a sort of unquestionable good - like milk for dinner or clean sheets each week.This time, something had changed. What was it?

Only this: we had lived overseas for eighteen months in rented accomodations while our books remained in storage back home. And, quite simply, I had learned to do without them. That makes it sound easy. Actually it was something of a wrench as I found myself constantly wanting the security of those authors walling me up. I would come in my thinking and writing upon ideas that would drive me back to those friends - and they would not be there. Or so I first thought. Yet the more I went on, the more I discovered that they were there all along, though not, as it were, in the flesh. They had not given all they had to give; no good book ever does. But they had given me a great deal more than I realized. They had tucked their treasures quietly away in memory, forgotten, until suddenly, in a moment of need, they reappeared. In their absence, I was thrust toward maturity - the leaving behind of a dependency on things, the beginnings of a trust instead in the ideas they contained.

Not, I hasten to add, that I am ready to throw away all the books. But I think I may have to become more selective. Thoreau said (I have it in a carton somewhere) that he would rather sit on his own pumpkin than another man's throne. I would rather live among a frugal library of well-loved volumes than wallow about among roomfuls of redundancies. I think it's time for weeding.

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

Save for later

Save
Cancel

Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items

OK