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Show Your Shelf!

Miniature of Cornificia (Corinse) in her study, from a Flemish translation of Christine de Pizan’s Cité des dames (‘De Lof der Vrouwen’), Bruges, 1475. British Library Add MS 20698, f.70r


Nowadays, even the Pope takes selfies. If you’re a committed writer and/or reader, though, you can get a better likeness than that. Share your shelfies, picture of your books. Give yourself a little leeway, and you can include your desk, your writing space and your reading corner. Why post a picture of your ugly mug? Show us your frontal cortex!

Here’s the most public of my shelfies, the bookcase beside my fireplace.  It displays the books most worth looking at as objects. Almost all of those on the top two shelves were my mother’s or my grandmother’s. They’re bound in leather, tooled in gold. (The books, not my progenitors, though they were pretty hidebound, too.)  The stretch of identical bindings is a set of officially worthy books, some of which are indispensable, like Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, though I’d already read those in paperback before it occurred to me to look through the family holdings. On the other hand, Lord Charnwood’s biography of Abraham Lincoln will probably be up there, unmoved and undusted, when I die.

The tall books on the bottom shelves are mostly art and coffee table books. I have no memory at all of their provenance. I think people break in at night and drop them off to free up their own shelf space.

Below, in extreme contrast, is The Holy of Holies. Books have to be canonized to get here, and for this purpose, I am the Pope. Most are fiction; a few belong on the history or science shelves. Atwood and Byatt are there, as are Pogo, the best of Diana Wynne Jones, and Perfection Salad, a study on the sociology of home cooking around 1900 that transports me to my grandmother’s kitchen. The woman in the picture is my best friend. A librarian, naturally.

Next, my Purgatory. These, combined, constitute the To Be Read pile. I’ll spare you images of the Lowest Circle (books that have been sitting around so long I can’t remember what they’re about, let alone why I bought them) and the Middle Circle (books I still firmly intend to get to, only not just now, because the purchasing impulse did not convert quickly enough into the buckling down impulse. There’s a lot of nonfiction here.)

Finally, the TBR Upper Circle. These are probably going to make it into my brain within a year or so. I hardly had to rearrange the piles at all to display all my major interests (widdershins from top left): writing, the Israel/Palestine conflict, mysteries and Buddhism. The mix stays the same all the way down. There are also a few specialized books picked up for research, for instance, a detailed description of a classic Yankee-clipper-era mansion and an endless account of everything known about the Abenaki people of New England. But I guess those come in under “writing.”

How about you, readers? What do your bookshelves look like? Are your shelfies a better likeness of the real you than what you see in the mirror?

Later addendum: Actually, it’s not your frontal cortex (which should have been “frontal lobe” anyway.) You read with your posterior parietal lobe. But somehow, “show us your posterior!” even with “parietal lobe” added, seems to change the tone.






Giveaway Books. Or Not.

Awaiting you at the Five College Book Sale

Awaiting you at the Five Colleges Book Sale


The annual Five Colleges Book Sale is a big deal here in the Upper Valley. Organized to fund scholarships for New Hampshire and Vermont students at Mt. Holyoke, Simmons, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley colleges, it is the largest second-hand book sale in northern New England. For this book addict, it is a blessed way to reduce my library, at least for the two weeks between when I drop off my contributions and when I attend the sale.

Today, I went down to the basement to pack up the pile of books that I have winnowed over the last year. Here are a few of the items you’ll be able to buy at a really good price, while benefitting worthy young scholars:

The German Cookbook, by Mimi Sheraton. I bought this book hoping to please my Germanophile husband with the dishes of his ancestors.

After rolling the strudel dough

After rolling the strudel dough

I should have checked the apple strudel recipe before I forked over the cash. It involves rolling out dough, which you have already slapped down on the pastry board 115 times, over a whole kitchen table until it is as thin as tissue paper. Guess I’ll have to think of some other way to please my husband.

Two biographies of Samuel Johnson. I tried hard to like Johnson. I read Boswell’s Life of Johnson and was sure he had to be right about his idol. So I read these books. Doubtless they are great works of scholarship. But what kind of idiot tries to write a life of Johnson after Boswell?

Six paperback murder mysteries, published between 1993 and 2014. I read them all within the last two or three years. I cannot remember the plot of a single one. This confirms me in my dreary notion that my own mystery manuscript will have to be re-re-re-revised till Judgment Day.

AngelsAndDemonsAngels and Demons, by Dan Brown. Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was a page turner, I admit. No matter that it read like its own outline. Like everyone else, I couldn’t put it down. So I went and paid the hardback price for his earlier book. It was like The Da Vinci Code if The Da Vinci Code had never been outlined at all. It had angels and demons. I guess. Further, deponent remembereth not.

The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling. His Life and Works, by Angus Wilson. I haven’t read this one. It belonged to my late husband. I’d like to read it…but there just isn’t TIME. I flipped through it… it looks fascinating…with photos, yet…a Spy cartoon…but something’s got to go. I can’t keep retrieving things from the pile.

Which brings me to the more interesting part of this list. Below are several books from the pile that the Five-Colleges sale will not be seeing. How long have they languished in this limbo? And more important, what was I thinking when I put them there?

Something of Myself, by Rudyard Kipling. I compromised. I’ll give up the biography and keep the autobiography. I flipped through this, too. I cannot discard a book that includes the sentence, “For the great J.M. [Cook] himself – the man with the iron mouth and domed brow – had been one of my father’s guests at Lahore when he was trying to induce the Indian Government to let him take over the annual pilgrimage to Mecca as a business proposition.”

The Letters of Madame, Vol. II. Princess Elisabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate, known as “Madame,” married Louis XIV’s brother in 1671. She was a woman

Madame, in her later years

Madame, in her later years

who did not pussyfoot. She slapped her son’s face before the whole court when she learned that he had agreed to marry one of his royal uncle’s bastards. She never had the slightest desire to participate in court intrigue, love affairs, government or fashion. She liked hunting all day, she liked her meals large and regular, and she loved to write letters. The accounts she sent to her German family and friends about the court at Versailles were so frank that the government used them to blackmail her in later life. Their demand? That she shut up about her opinion of Mme. de Maintenon, the king’s mistress. I found this second volume, without its first, in a second-hand bookstore, and I have been looking for Volume I ever since.

Howe & Hummel: Their True and Scandalous History, by Richard H. Rovere. William F. Howe and Abraham H. Hummel were New York lawyers in the second half of the nineteenth century. They got murderers off scot free. They got Lilian Russell divorced – frequently. They bought off witnesses. Hummel eventually went to jail himself. If you liked the movie Chicago, you’d love Howe & Hummel.

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway. Good grief! This is a first edition, bought by my mother when it came out in 1964. Just last year, I bought the new edition that includes the parts that Hemingway’s publishers cut, and I hunted for this book to compare it with. And there it was, down in the giveaway pile. I must have been mad.

These notes are based on the contents of the first two grocery bags of books that made up the pile. There are two more. I don’t dare look into them.

Bad Reads

“Leave me alone. I’m reading.” We’ve all said it, and we haven’t said it half as often as we wanted to. Give us a good book, and the world can stay on hold forever.

But how about, “Somebody get me out of this book! Where are the telemarketers when you need them?”

Why do we keep slogging through books we don’t want to read? We of all people, wordsmiths, people of literary judgment! (And in my case, old people. I don’t have decades to waste.)

Lately, I’ve been buzz-bombed by these loser books. The worst of them was called The Matter of the Gods, by Clifford Ando. It purports to be a history of religion in ancient Rome. In a former incarnation, I was a classicist, and mythology was my specialty. So I bought the d***** book. Imagine the ghastliest academese prose, wrenched and decorated to sound arch, while avoiding the dreadful faux pas of actually suggesting any conclusions. That’s MotG.

Why did I finish it? Because every couple of pages, he’d quote an ancient writer I’d never read or drop in a factoid on Roman ritual that was new to me. Drop a trail of M&Ms and I’ll follow you anywhere. It’s the kind of reinforcement that creates drug addicts.

Running in tandem with MotG was Antidote to Venom, by Freeman Wills Crofts. Crofts was one of the most popular mystery writers of the Golden Age, God knows why. I bought it because I’m working on a book that involves snake venom. Crofts’ golden rule seems to be that every thought, speech and action must be reported at least twice. Plans must be explained at length, and then carried out at equal length, in the same sequence. Plod. Plod. Plod. And to top it off, one of his villains has an alibi so unbreakable that Crofts has to give him a religious conversion at the end, to elicit a confession!

Why did I finish it? Sheer bloody-mindedness. Not to be able to finish a book in my own genre and of the period I most admire was too shaming. Also, it had just been reissued. So publishers thought it would sell, right? I should see why, right? I still don’t know.

Then there are the bestsellers everyone else has read. A few years ago, I read Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. It was 944 pages of I-still-don’t-know-what. It had something to do with domestic violence; I figured that much out. It had an alternate universe in it, only it wasn’t all that alternate.

Why did I finish it? This one was almost justified. Murakami’s prose floated me along in a mental state just like that of his confused characters. This stuff was just happening. You couldn’t do anything about it, so you just did the next thing. Which was to read the next sentence. Still, 315 pages would have been enough.

Don’t even ask me about books written by friends.

So, what to do, assuming that you find you can’t just toss the book? Here are my strategies:

  • Demote to bathroom. This worked, eventually, for The Matter of the Gods and Antidote to Venom. The time isn’t wasted, and page by page you get to the end. Please do not tear out completed pages and re-purpose them. That is cruel.
  • Learn to skim. This used to be called speed reading. It doesn’t really work, but you can pretend it does, and if your eyes have traveled over every page, you are only half lying when you say you’ve read it.
  • Arrange an unfortunate accident. This requires a degree of double-think, but what writer lacks that? Reading paperbacks in the bathtub is the easiest method. (Buy an oilier bubble bath.) Leave hardbacks on or near the recycle container. Forget them in waiting areas or on public transportation.

I’m about to start Chris Holm’s The Killing Kind. It’s about a hit man who only hits other hit men. I gobbled down three of his earlier books. I’ll have to find something else to read in the bathroom.

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