Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bookshelf Revelations

(click on images for larger view)

Last week The Millions ran an interesting article, “In Our Parents’ Bookshelves” by Kevin Hartnett, about the effect E-readers will have on the books people buy in hard copy vs. electronic version and how that will have an impact on what we see on personal bookshelves. Hartnett realized while watching his young son play with a pile of books that “the clunky objects he was playing with seemed like relics.” Bookshelf contents reveal much about their owner. After examining the books on the shelf in his mother’s bedroom at the house where she’d grown up, Hartnett describes them as resembling “a type of monument.” He writes, “I got the clearest glimpse I ever had of my mother as a person who existed before me and apart from me, and whose inner life was as bottomless as I knew my own to be.”

I do not yet own an E-reader, but I imagine that day is not far off. I already buy Kindle downloads for my iPod Touch. I downloaded the free app for iPods last year while recovering from hand surgery, during a time when it was difficult for me to hold a book. I read my first Kindle books holding the iPod in my good hand while my other hand was immersed in the fluidotherapy machine at physical therapy.

I’m not an earlier adopter of gadgets, however, simply because I don’t have the discretionary income to be one. My budget tells me I have to wait to see what the best option will be, and it’s still too early to tell. I want an E-reader that will allow me to make annotations onto the page as the Kindle does, yet I’m reluctant to buy a Kindle simply because I’m leery of having a bookseller as powerful as Amazon have that much control over what is published and how it is stored (and considering how Amazon went about removing Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles last year – copies which the Kindle owners had purchased – that is a serious concern). I was counting on Apple to come up with an E-reader that would dazzle me, but the iPad seems not much more than I already have with my iPod. In fact it even looks like a big iPod – maybe too big. I want an E-reader that is light in weight that will fit in my purse, something about the size of a trade paperback.

One reason an E-reader appeals to me is simply that I’m running out of space for more bookshelves. We’re at a point in our lives where we should be downsizing, but if we bring many more books home we’re going to need to build on an addition just for books. I’m thinking of attaching a silo as a circular library equipped with a very tall ladder. Seriously. I once saw a photograph of one and immediately asked Kevin, “Can we get one? Huh? Huh? Can we get one this weekend?”


I’ve loved books since I was a very young girl. My grandmother had a bookcase in her living room filled with Book of the Month Club editions, which I now realize must have been a huge luxury considering my grandparents’ income. They lived in a very small town in the mountains where the nearest library was twenty miles away. Before I could read, I used to take books from Grandma’s bookcase and turn the pages, amazed that those black markings on the page were words that held a story – knowing that someday I would be able to read them myself. Grandma had grown up in a house with a library room, which I remember well from visits to my great-grandmother’s house. The library table from her house is now in my own home. I used it for many years as a desk, but now keep it in the guest bedroom where the bottom shelf of that table is filled with stacks of books I haven’t found shelf space for yet.


In the small house where I grew up, my parents didn’t have many books of their own. They subscribed to Life and Look, though, and I suspect that looking at the photographs in those glossy magazines had an influence on me wanting to study photography later. After my dad’s retirement he had more leisure time to read, and he then bought books on history and religion which began to accumulate in their house.

The first bookshelf of my very own was built into the headboard of my bed, and I gradually filled it with books from the Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden series, as well as paperbacks from Scholastic Books which were available for students to buy through our school. But most of the books I read as a pre-teen were borrowed from the local library, which my mom drove me to during the summer months when I couldn’t get books from my school library.

When I was a teenager, my dad built a pine bookcase for me which I quickly filled with paperback copies of favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, and The Yearling among them – as well as more popular best sellers of the time such as Love Story, which all the girls at school were reading. Someone searching through my bookshelves back then would’ve seen a mind trying to figure out her place in the larger world – moving from fashion and advice in magazines such as Ingénue and Seventeen, to the novels of Hemingway and the Bronte sisters, and back to teen idol magazines such as Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine (hello David Cassidy) until I outgrew and replaced them with Rollingstone Magazine (hello James Taylor and Jackson Browne).

College friendships were formed in part by seeing what LPs (those were the final vinyl days) and books were on someone’s shelves and determining what interests we shared, and by seeing what new books and music their interests opened up to us. Now, books are about to go the way of LPs and CDs. Have you noticed how small the music section is getting at stores lately? No? Perhaps you’ve stopped browsing and shopping there too, just as happy to purchase and download the files from iTunes for your iPod.

When Kevin and I first joined our lives together and were barely eking out a living in San Francisco back in the late 1970s, one of the first pieces of furniture we purchased was a bookcase. This was not a bookcase we bought in a store, but rather one that Kevin built after borrowing tools to cut and sand the planks of pine we carried home from the lumber store. We didn’t have a car back then, but somehow managed to get the lumber home on a Muni bus – the 38 Geary, to be exact. Those were the days! Our other furniture had been borrowed from his sisters, but that bookcase was ours. We filled it with used paperbacks we bought for about a quarter apiece at Green Apple Books, which I’m happy to say is still in business and still in the same location on Clement Street.


What my bookshelves reveal about me today would depend on which bookcase you were inspecting. We have books in nearly every room of the house, including the basement. In the study, which Kevin and I share and is the room where we spend most of our time, there are three long bookshelves above our desks. The bottom shelf is filled with reference books and books on writing craft, the upper shelves filled with novels. Lining the top of the credenza are oversized volumes, mostly photography books. In the living room is an oak bookcase with glass doors containing the signed and inscribed books we’ve acquired, many of them by West Virginia writers. That bookcase also holds most of our Beat writer collection, as well as numerous talismans related to the imagery in the novel I’m working on – a miner’s head lamp and coal mine core samples, a mastodon tooth (which can be seen on the shelf in front of the Kerouac books) and various other fossils too fragile to keep on my desk.

Kevin Hartnett closes his article by saying, “It remains to be seen how many more generations will have the adventure of getting to know their parents this way. . . To the extent that bookshelves persist, it will be in self-conscious form, as display cases filled with only the books we valued enough to acquire and preserve in hard copy. The more interesting story, however, the open-ended, undirected progressions of a life defined by books will surely be lost to a digital world in which there is no such thing as time at all.”

What do your bookshelves reveal about you? In what ways do you think the new digital book technology will change how you read and acquire books?


Around the Blogosphere:

A Conversation with Irene McKinney
Watch Kate Long’s wonderful interview with West Virginia poet laureate Irene McKinney on YouTube (WV public broadcasting). Part 1 is here. I love hearing these two distinctive regional West Virginia accents as they discuss McKinney’s work and the discoveries which come out of the writing process itself. More than twenty years ago after earning her PhD, McKinney returned to her home place in West Virginia to finish two books of poetry while on a six-month sabbatical from the university where she was teaching in New York. She ended up moving back to West Virginia permanently. From the window of her home, she can see the house and barn that were her home place. The house she built is filled with books, which you can see in parts 2 and 3 of the interview (note to self: stop worrying about space for additional bookshelves, just start stacking them on the floor). I’ve long admired McKinney’s poetry, and have mentioned Kate Long’s radio series In Their Own Country (which includes an interview with McKinney) in previous posts here at In This Light. McKinney reads several of her poems in the interview and speaks of the memoir she is writing, which she calls “a memoir of place” because she believes describing the region and people she comes from is the best way to say who she is. (link via Meredith Sue Willis)

Literature and the Web
Meredith Sue Willis has launched a new blog, Literature and the Web, and the latest edition of her Books for Readers is now posted online. Information on upcoming appearances and her two new books, Out of the Mountains: Appalachian Stories from Ohio University Press, and Ten Strategies to Start Your Novel from Montemayor Press, both to be released in summer 2010 can be found here.
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8 comments:

Edd Fuller said...

Our house is crammed with books. If you ever see a headline in the paper "Virginia Couple Killed in Bookslide," that will be my wife and me. So from that standpoint, the e-readers have an appeal.

On the other hand, I love books not only for their content, but for their physical form as well. There is something comforting about holding a beautifully designed and well made book. I am not ready to give that up for a plastic box.

Of course not all books are beautifully designed and well made. E-readers could probably replace, say, mass market paperbacks very nicely. In any event count me in the ink and paper crowd.

One other point--if you want to know what the books on my shelves say about me, you will have to stop by the house and visit for a while. I will not be in the E-publishers database.

Dory Adams said...

Edd, thanks for the thoughtful comments. Yes -- I would think mass market paperbacks could easily be replaced by E-readers. It's fascinating to watch this whole digital evolution take place in publishing. We've already seen it happen with music and with film -- digital cameras have pretty much wiped out the photofinishing industry.

cynthia newberry martin said...

I love seeing pictures of other people's books and bookshelves. I do have a kindle, but only use it when I'm traveling and only if I have to limit what I take.

Dory Adams said...

Cynthia, I can see how an E-reader would be great for traveling as a lightweight and compact way of toting multiple books along on a trip. I'm curious about the annotation feature on the Kindle since that's not part of the Kindle iPod app. Do you use it? If so, does it work well?

cynthia newberry martin said...

Dory, I've used the underlining feature a lot. It's simple. And you can pull up all you've underlined at one time. I have not tried to write anything yet.

Lisa said...

One thing that really touched me about that Millions article was the fact that people have access to their parents' childhood bedrooms. The room I grew up in is long gone, and my mother managed to lose most of my childhood books and toys... so that kind of thing evokes a wild abstract nostalgia in me. You'd better believe I kept absolutely everything of my son's.

As far as what my bookcases say about me, that would be a) I'm a greedy and promiscuous book buyer; b) I live with another one, and c) you'd never know I had a Kindle all loaded up too -- it's great for my subway commute, and just another way to be indiscriminate. The instant gratification aspect is fun. But I'll still always prefer paper books, all told.

Dory Adams said...

Lisa, I'd have to be careful about the instant gratification thing if I owned a Kindle. Glad to see you here! Your own blog, Like Fire, is wonderful and every book lover reading this post should check it out.

lisa peet said...

Thank you, Dory! This is a really beautiful blog, always something of value here.