Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Editing My Bookshelves, Part II

Last post, I told you about culling my bookshelves recently as part of a project to transform the closet in our TV/Guest Room/Library into a workspace that would allow me some room to sprawl and be somewhat organized. To leave my projects on the desktop while I attended to other tasks without having to feel apologetic about them cluttering up the dining table--or resentful if I had to pack them away.
Before the "big cull" we'd emptied and dismantled one wall of shelves -- I anticipated that with the closet doors removed and my new workspace exposed, the room would look too busy; it needed to be lightened up. Instead of two opposing walls of dark bookshelves, we repurposed a long narrow table, blond, bought at Ikea years ago. The TV sits on it, and there's now room on the wall for an arrangement of paintings and prints we'd been storing. Below that, a special-edition Ikea bench in a similar blond wood -- it comes in handy a few times a year for extra seating at family dinners, and we'd been loath to get rid of it. So that works well for my make-do approach. We're still working on finding a balance here between storage and display. . . Almost there, though, and much more suitable to the space than the darker bookshelves. Much easier to clean as well.

But you're not really here for the "decorating" details, are you?

Last post, I promised to tell you a bit more about the process, about the way those pages you see above represent a sort of Marie Kondo approach to the letting go, even if they made it much longer.

I mentioned, in that post, that I'd already sent hundreds of CDs off to the thrift shop. Yes, I suffered pangs about how many thousands of dollars I'd spent on them, but quickly countered my misgivings with memories of all the hours of pleasure they'd brought. More difficult to quiet was my regret about not having this music close at hand anymore, even though we'd somehow lost the habit of playing CDs and were unlikely to replace the ancient player. The salve here, for me, was ensuring that I "followed" each artist or band or opera or symphony or compilation on Spotify. It's true that there will be some less popular, more obscure tracks that I will probably lose/miss in the process. And there will likely come a day when I will mind that very much for a moment. I hope I'll remind myself then that I can't have everything and that I made a considered and worthy choice which has served me well.

So by the time I came to culling the books, a few weeks later, I'd done some of the emotional work already, and I'd got a useful approach in place. This time, instead of Spotify, I turned to paper and pen, recording title and author of each book in the back pages of my reading journal.

As I lifted each book off the shelf,  I thought for a moment about when I'd bought it, and why. Some were from the year or two when I subscribed to the Book-of-the-Month club in my very late teens, very early twenties and amassed a few sets of classics (Faulkner, Hemingway, Austen, Brontë, Fitzgerald, Maugham, Tolstoy, etc.). I paused more to think of me at 20, young and earnest, buying books after a childhood and adolescence of borrowing them, trying to discern which were worth owning, taking a modest pride in titles filling in the bricks-and-boards bookshelves. The books themselves I don't need copies of. They can easily be found in any library almost anywhere, although the Austen and Brontë I might borrow now won't have my teaching notes in the margins. . . .

Some books recalled book clubs I've belonged to over the years; some reminded me of the fervour of a particular time, the relevance, for example, of feminist fiction, relief that something I knew intuitively, experienced regularly, had been articulated eloquently. Again, though, many of these could be recovered at a library -- and many, in retrospect, seemed too caught up in the time of the original reading for me to know I wanted to revisit them.

Of course, many course syllabi were represented on the shelves--ones that I'd taught and ones that I'd studied. Commonwealth/postcolonial studies and German Literature in translation and English Literature in its numerous periods. A graduate course on Salman Rushdie, another on James Joyce. Some of these will stay on my shelves, still too meaningful to part with. But as much as these were a combination of Musts and Shoulds at the time, they are now rather reproachful Shoulds. Time to admit I'm not going to reread them, not likely even to pick them up looking for a particular passage. And, again, if I want to, I can pick up a copy at the local library or request an inter-library loan.

Another set of books that once comprised both Musts and Shoulds can be seen in the titles that I once wanted to read because they were the latest work of an author I admired or because I'd read an intriguing review or because a friend pressed the book on me or a daughter gave me a copy on my birthday. All worth reading at the time, but again, time to admit I don't need to own a copy anymore. I especially didn't need to dust it regularly (shocking how much dust comes in the windows of our urban condo!).

With each book that I decided, after this brief evaluative process, to release, I wrote down the title in a quickly lengthening list and I put the book into one of two boxes -- We'd learned that the (well-stocked, good-quality) secondhand bookstore in our neighbourhood would only take books with no ink markings. I hope you won't be shocked to know that I do write in my books, but it's true. Especially if I read the book for a course, even more so if I used it for teaching, I'd quite likely underlined passages or marked them with an asterisk or jotted notes in margins and in the endpapers. Many of my books had name and phone number written on the front page. I used up many minutes obscuring those with a dark marker before putting the books in boxes destined for the Salvation Army thrift store.

I readily admit to my good fortune in sharing the labour of this task with Pater/Paul, who had to carry and load the boxes into and out of the car, delivering them to the thrift shop. Even more impressive is that he carried the books with better re-sale possibilities three blocks up the street to the secondhand bookstore. It became a bit easier for him once the bookstore clerk realized he was seeing a repeat performance and that there were more in the wings. At that point, Paul was lent a dolly, which he used to make three or four more trips, these ones transporting three stacked boxes of books at a time.

Which brings me to the next commitment I made last post, when I promised to write this one:  I'll tell you how much money I made selling the books to a local secondhand bookshop (I didn't get rich!), and I'll share a few discoveries. And I'll tell you which book I'd been meaning to order a copy of -- ever since reading Raynor Winn's The Salt Path (the last entry in that 2+months ago post). . . and then found I'd already bought a few years ago and forgot about because it was lost in my own bookshelves!

For the boxes and boxes of books, which represented thousands of dollars spent and untold hours lost to the pleasure of reading, I was delighted to receive 150 dollars. Cash. Not store credit which would have had me filling up those shelves as quickly as I'd cleared them. Cash. Almost enough to pay for the roll of wallpaper enlivening my new workspace. Well, almost enough for 3/4 of the roll. I was primarily gratified that the books were deemed worthy of space on the bookshop's shelves, that new readers will be discovering them soon. . . .

The discoveries I made while clearing shelves? I have quite a few books signed by their authors, many of whom I've been fortunate to meet in person over the years. I'd decided early in the culling process that, for now, I'd keep those. So Margaret Drabble's The Gates of Ivory, consigned to the give-away pile (I've just checked; as I suspected, it's readily available from the library) moved back to sit with my "keepers" when I opened it to check for the bookstore's disqualifying ink and found Drabble's signature.  Not only is the book a signed copy but she must have signed it in my presence because her signature is prefaced by "for Frances." I must have heard her read, as well, and I try to prod my recalcitrant memory but other than tentatively identifying a writer's festival in the early '90s, I've got nothing. Except a signed paperback copy of her book, back on my bookshelves.

As I gently shook out the pages of one book, a piece of notepaper slid out, my dad's immediately recognizable hand, the contact details of my younger brother and his wife. Dad died in 2000, and the contact details were from an address my brother's family left some years before that.  . .

When I pulled my hardcover copy of Michael Pollan's A Place of my Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder off the shelf, I remembered the email I'd sent to the address on the end flap at the back.  We were in the middle of a big renovation of our little cedar cabin at the beach, lifting it up to give it a better foundation, adding a two-storey addition, and his quiet erudition mixed with thoughtful meditation about domestic space and our space in the world inspired me and guided me and comforted me by putting our travails at the time into a wider context. The email address was a welcome invitation to let him know that. But I didn't expect a personal response and I remember the delight (and some awe) when I opened my email to find he'd written me a very thoughtful and sincere paragraph. A brief paragraph, but not one obviously written by an assistant. Remembering all this in a flash, wishing I'd saved a digital copy (but how many transfers would that have meant, over the 20+ years), I opened the book, wondering if it was time to let another reader find it. And there inside was a printed copy of my email on one side of a folded page, a copy of his on the other side. So this one stays, for now, although I have a good friend who's building a house right now, and perhaps I should lend her it. . . . 

And finally, the book I'd been intending to buy, luckily hadn't yet ordered because I found this in a stack of books that had been haphazardly stored on the shelves that used to harbour the TV.

There you go. The book I "shopped my bookshelves for" is by Simon Armitage, the "walking poet" for whom Raynor Winn's husband kept being mistaken as the recently homeless couple walked their way along England's Salt Path. I've just begun to read Walking Home: A Poet's Journey, and I'll report back to you later (so far, I can say that it's good enough to have been absolutely no help at all with a recent bout of insomnia. No help in getting me back to sleep, that is, but it did keep me thoroughly entertained at 3 a.m.).

And now I'm done. Done culling my bookshelves, done sorting and reshelving and making space for the next batch of book purchases (it's ongoing, an addiction I don't hope to overcome). And done shifting the room, and carving out a workspace where I can write about -- even sketch representation of -- my reading. As I finish this post, I'm sitting at the desk you see above, and if I stretch out my right hand and swivel my chair sharply to the right, I can touch the bookshelf. If I push the chair back too vigorously, I'll be stopped by the rolled arm of the leather couch that we cozy up on to watch Netflix on the TV opposite.

Leaving that wheeled swivel chair now, leaving my desk, and leaving the mic to you. Your comments are always welcome. I'm especially curious to know how my culling parameters relate to yours, and whether or not reading figures in the design of your living space. The conversation that built around the previous post was splendidly engaging and I hope it might continue here.


  1. 1) If I were a little devil sitting on your shoulder, I would whisper 'Psst! Frances! Ya wanna know what looks real nice on a long narrow table? Books! Stacks of 'em!'

    2) Last post, I thought (but did not say) that high on my list of 'will not cull' was Margaret Drabble. Of course I scanned the sketch of your list and saw The Gates of Ivory was there...oh no...then to read it was not only saved from the chopping block but...to think!...it is signed and you cannot remember that happening...how I laughed...

    1. Georgia, I think you must have been a little devil because there are two stacks sitting on that bench, side by side, as we speak. Husband hasn't spotted them yet and they're really only there because they're my TBR books, just waiting to be processed ;-)
      Isn't it funny that my memory is that foggy? I do have a vestigial sense of her shape and demeanour (and I seem to remember her being asked something about her sister. . . Strange, though, because I have numerous books signed by the author and most of those meetings (however fleeting) I do recall. . .

  2. Your sketch above is absolutely charming - my favourite so far! It's probably because I can't imagine a room without books. Books loom large in our living space, though I can hardly call it "design." A few years ago we moved into a small, one and a half story cottage. As we were moving in furniture, I eyeballed a bookcase my father had made many years ago and then eyeballed a space at the top of the stairs under the eaves. That'll fit I thought and sure enough, it filled the space perfectly!
    By the way, your work space looks very inspiring. May the sketches keep coming!
    Frances in sidney

    1. I love that you could manouevre that bookshelf into its rightful space so accurately by eyeball. We don't do rooms without books either. . . although I'm increasingly questioning various aspects of collection/storage.
      Thank you so much for your kind words about the sketches. The encouragement is much appreciated.

  3. It must feel very good to have your workspace and not have to clear it up. I'm currently perching at the kitchen table to work, so constant migrations of my stuff. My husband now works from home here several days a fortnight, and as his job required him to sign the Official Secrets Act he needs an office that's not a thoroughfare and where he can take part in video meetings. A workspace/thinking space for me is being built in the shape of a new room in the attic space, and I'm excited about that and can bear the kitchen table meantime.
    Yes, books are a major feature of our renovation. We are installing a new kitchen, including knocking down the wall between kitchen and dining room. The run of half-height kitchen units between the two rooms will have a bookcase as the dining room facing side - so a waist height run of books topped by work surface. We're excited because we've just thought that we can fit built-in bookshelves into another area of the dining room. And then there will be the whole wall of books in the living room and the bookcases in the bedrooms and at the end of the hall and in the new room upstairs..

    1. It's a huge comfort, after three years, to finally have this space. Not only was it frustrating to keep packing up projects that I worked on at the dining table, as you are doing, but I felt continually apologetic about my messy working style. I generally have a few projects going at once, and I tend to sprawl so that I can see what I've got and what I need. I hated having that tendency exposed, although my husband was always very supportive.
      Your new bookshelves sound similar to some of the built-ins we had in our house. . . . Le sigh . . . .

  4. Hi,
    Is it possible that someone else had Margaret Drabble inscribe the book to you and gave it as a gift? Otherwise, considering your memories of other authors' signed books, it seems almost unbelievable you;d not recall the occasion!


  5. Cara, I've a fragmented image of her in a room, reading, and in retrospect, thinking about it, I know I was in her presence. But I've been at so many readings through the years, and honestly, I've never read much of her work, so that it mustn't have had the same impact. Around that time (perhaps at the same event) I saw/heard David Mahlouf, Vikram Seth, Jane Urquhart, for example, and have much clearer memories of that (although, again, 30 intervening years have obscured those considerably. . . .