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.

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