Wednesday, August 14, 2013


To browse my bookshelves is to browse my history.

Our history, actually. The books my husband and I choose to keep reflect our lives both before our marriage and during. Walk into the study (as we call it) and you could tell the story of our lives by reading the titles on the bookshelves.

We have always had a study. Even in our first apartment we turned the extra bedroom into a room of books. Of course, back then we couldn’t afford shelves, so most of the books remained in boxes.

But that was okay. The ones we really wanted were out (The Lord of the Rings, for example) and we knew we weren’t going to rent forever. Might as well leave them boxed for the next move – which was into our first house.

That house was about 1400 square feet, but it had three bedrooms upstairs. We took the back bedroom as our own, the tiny bedroom as storage (no attic) and the front room as our study. I never had the privilege of meeting my husband’s grandfather, but the one and only bookshelf we owned was one he’d built and my husband had inherited. Steven built all the bookshelves for the study based on his grandfather’s design.

When my daughter was born, the storage room became the baby’s bedroom. Then my son came into the world and we round-robined the rooms: ours became my daughter’s, we moved into the study and all the bookshelves moved into the hall. Notice we did not box up the books and put them into storage. We overcrowded the house rather than not have them available.

When we outgrew the house, we deliberately chose a new house with extra bedrooms. There are four of us, so naturally we chose a five bedroom Queen Anne. A bedroom each for my son and daughter, one for my husband and I to share, a tiny room for my loom and one beautiful bedroom with a balcony that overlooks the park for the study. Yes, the books got the best bedroom of the house.

So how many books are we talking? I actually counted at one point and stopped at a thousand. Some are small – scripts for plays don’t take up much room – until you have over a hundred; we quickly outgrew the shelves my husband had made. I found a picture in a magazine that showed a set of shelves that took up an entire wall and went around a door. My husband, bless his soul, said, “Sure. I can build that!”

That's our cat, Aspen, in the corner.
 He thinks HE owns the house.

 And he did. The door to the study originally had just the center section as clear glass. In the room’s makeover, he took the door down and stripped the seven (seven!) layers of paint off it and found a beautiful red maple underneath. We both do stained glass work (him more than me lately) and he designed a set of windows that depict the four seasons.

When we found molding that matched the window, we bought it and used watercolor paint, thinned to make a stain, to color in the leaves and vines. He built cupboards down below with a wide shelf for oversized books. Why cupboards? Because I wanted a place to hide the messy stuff like papers and maps.

The turned corner. And some books I'm still trying
to find room for. The books over the doorway are
 all over a hundred years old. Play scripts are the first
section beside the door.

But my hubby isn’t one to do things by halves. We realized that we’d have some wasted space on the eastern wall so our solution was to “turn” the bookshelf so it would wrap around that corner and give a little more shelf space. However, I went to my day job on the day he was framing things up and when I got home, he’d done the same to the western wall, even though it meant a six-foot extension. He said it just made sense to him.

I’m glad it did. When we unboxed the books to put them on the new shelves, we thought we’d have lots of space left over.
Obviously we didn’t.

We filled nearly every inch of every shelf.

And it’s only gotten worse. We’ve gotten to the point that, in order for a book to be added, a book has to go. Talk about dilemmas!

Shakespeare starts on the right. Next section is science
 fiction. First section facing you is fantasy and
the section near the door is biography, philosophy
comedy and gardening. Eclectic!
Because that’s where the history of our lives comes in. My husband originally planned to be a Roman Catholic priest, but left the seminary when he fell in love with me (blush). He still has two full shelves of philosophy books and isn’t willing to part with any of them. They are an interest of his (he’s still more likely to pick up and finish a book on belief systems than any other type of book) and an important part of his life.

Then there’s the entire six-shelf section of play scripts. We were both theatre majors and he is a  theatre director. My daughter is a stage manager (and currently in-between jobs – if you have one, she also does scenic painting and lighting design). Just yesterday my husband was looking for a play to direct this autumn and came to that set of shelves to browse. Books on theatre have spilled over to a seventh shelf of oversized ones.

Let’s not forget the six shelves of Shakespeare editions and commentaries. A group of us, just out of college and unemployed, decided not to wait for opportunity. We created our own theatre troupe and talked Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua into letting us perform. They paid for the dry cleaning of our costumes (which I made) and allowed us to pass the hat after each performance for our money. Three of us, a good friend, Larry Woodhouse, my husband and I owned the company and we performed at Sonnenberg for eight years. That set of shelves represents not only our love of Shakespeare, but some fun memories as well.

Science fiction and fantasy. Two separate genre that often get shelved together in libraries and bookstores. Each gets its own space in our study. Both are among my favorite genre to read, although I confess to a preference for fantasy. As a result, the fantasies have started to encroach on the science fiction. In a normal house where the shelves didn’t tell stories, this might be all that was on the shelves.

Biographies. I enjoy reading bios as well – people’s stories have always fascinated me. Probably why I first tried to become an actress and now write stories. This section has seen the most culling out. I finally decided I could only keep the stories of actors and actresses and a few historical figures (sorry, John Adams is one of my favorites. I have several biographies of him and they stay and that’s final!). I also kept the first biographies I ever got – one of George Washington and one of Alexander Hamilton – because they’re a part of who I am. They’re my history.

What’s left? Everything else. Although I prefer fantasy, I read everything. Classics and mysteries (Poe and I share a birthday. Is it any wonder I went literary with my life?), pulp novels and non-fiction. A small collection of poetry, some anthologies. Emily Post for when I need a point of etiquette. What are the criteria for shelving in this section? Whatever flops my mop. It has to be good enough for me to say, “yeah, I want to keep this.”

You’ll notice there’s very little in the way of romance on my shelves. Most of those I read and pass on. I’ve kept a few, but mostly, no. There’s no erotic romance because I buy those as ebooks. At first that was a conscious decision because I had small children, then growing, curious children. Now it’s a matter of habit. So nothing on the shelves I couldn’t share with my mother.

You will also notice the knickknacks. Each of these also tell a story and each is placed where it is for a reason.

I started by saying that, to browse our bookshelves is to browse our history. You want to know me and my family? Come visit and we will spend an hour or two in this room. My husband is reflected in it. My daughter has added to the collection, my son is currently reading through all the science fiction (although he prefers audiobooks. He’s so excited when he discovers the book he’s currently listening to is one we have on the shelves and that I’ve read it.) This room is our collective heart.

What we choose to keep and what we choose to pass on or throw away is part of what makes us who we are. These books are me. Each of them has changed me in some way and I keep them to remind me of those changes.

If you want to know some of the stories, +1 this if you’re reading it through Google, re-tweet the post if you’re on Twitter, send me an email or leave a comment below and I’ll write some short stories.

In the meantime, take a look at your own bookshelves. What stories about you do they tell? What is your criteria for keeping a book vs. passing it along? Tell us a story!

Play safe!
Diana, who plans to spend this rainy day curled up in that wing-backed chair reading a book....

No comments: