Monday, October 13, 2008

What (Besides Books) is on Your Bookshelf?

A few years ago, I had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves built into my office, and then proceeded to stuff them full of books. Already, I feel like I need more space. That's because my library card is merely for show. I can't seem to read a book without facing down the urge to own it. I want to pluck it from the shelves from time to time and relive the reading of it. After all, the experience of reading is about as important as the story itself: e.g. There's Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Read that one in 1994, and I remember finishing it at the kitchen table one morning before school started (I was teaching then) and flinging it across the room when Henry shot himself. I still love reading that prologue. You find out who did it FIRST, then spend the rest of the book figuring out why. Too cool. I love thumbing the pages.

Then of course, as is a function of humanity, I can't not notice the clutter that has taken root on my shelves. For reasons predictable and not, books on a bookshelf aren't enough. There must be landmarks of personal endeavor, trinkets of memory, photos, and random paraphernalia that marks my life in addition to the books. It's a visual album, laid out, observable in a glance, not just the books of my life, but the other accouterments of time spent reading and writing and living. There's my wife at age 20. There's my favorite drummer in a concert photo I bought off e-Bay. Plates with my children's handprints on them. I have a signed manuscript page from a William Styron essay about Robert Penn Warren (whose high school I was living in when I was reading The Secret History--very Kevin Bacon-ish). I have a framed photo of Dealey Plaza at sunset, the place where John Kennedy died. I have handmade boxes from a monastery in Spain, a public market in Honduras, La Ramblas in Barcelona. I have a picture of me with my friend Pat Conroy and the envelope that he wrote his agent's name on--who ended up being my first agent. There's a caricature of me the art teacher at my first school drew when I left that job. I have my first novel manuscript suffering in obscurity just above a Black & Decker book on how to build a porch (which I did--starting the week after Maggie was born, a lapse in judgment I continue to hear about to this day).

A great bookshelf is a chronicle, a time line in rows and stacks and mementos, a shorthand to what's been crammed in your brain over time. It's a permissive self-indulgence, one that pleases me, especially on this morning where I'm writing about writing because I really should be writing on my novel.

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