bookcases, books, Burt Lancaster, closets, Doc Moonlight Graham, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Field of Dreams, George Eliot, Great Gatsby, Hollywood, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Red Badge of Courage, These Diversions: Reading, Virginia Woolf
While I have moved past the demise of the typewriter, the turntable, and the tape deck, I cannot allow myself to believe that we will ever be entirely without our books. I love books. I love how they look, the way they feel and smell, and how it was that they came to be permanent fixtures on someone’s bookshelf – an hour spent perusing the contents of a bookcase can tell you much of what you need to know of the owner’s personality, past-times, and passions. Sometimes, too much, especially those bearing the tell-tale signs of wear, with dog-eared pages and chunks of underlined text and bold marginalia, some exactly what you’d expect from a pseudo-intellectual teenager giving the author a piece of her mind with lots of exclamation points and question marks. To this day, I read with a pen in hand. Making my marks in a book makes it mine, and I can revisit those margins in which I wrote my side of a conversation with the author and know exactly who I am.
Loving books is one thing, but it wasn’t until recently that I developed more than a passing interest in the physical space they occupy – my bookcases. Incongruously, a paperback copy of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native had, for sixteen years, leaned up against a second or third-hand copy of What to Expect when You’re Expecting passed along to me when I was, you know, expecting. For almost a decade, a copy of The Good Friday Peace Agreement signed for me by former Taoiseach John Bruton when he visited Arizona, was sandwiched unceremoniously between Bob Dylan’s Bringing it all Back Home LP and a large illustrated Beowulf (unfortunately not the version translated by Seamus Heaney). It was time to bring some order. As long ago as 1926, Hugh Walpole in “These Diversions: Reading” would have agreed:
“I believe it then to be quite simply true that books have their own very personal feeling about their place on the shelves. They like to be close to suitable companions, and I remember once on coming into my library that I was persistently disturbed by my ‘Jane Eyre’. Going up to it, wondering what was the matter with it, restless because of it, I only after a morning’s uneasiness discovered that it had been placed next to my Jane Austens, and anyone who remembers how sharply Charlotte criticized Jane will understand why this would never do.”
When it comes to arranging books on the shelves, I need someone with a critical eye and zero tolerance for books she knows I haven’t read. Someone like my mother who, when cleaning out a closet – mine not hers, mind you – brings a take-no-prisoners approach. If it hasn’t been worn in a year, or if she discerns that it is hanging in there for “sentimental reasons,” (like she knit it for me or bought it for me in 1987), then it has to go in the big black bag which will then go to a charitable organization or a consignment store. I have often thought about hiring a professional to organize my closet, but I fear I will end up like one of those poor women on a reality program on The Learning Channel. Mortified, in my front yard, by the sight of the contents of my closet, my entire wardrobe, spread out on the grass, in the glare of a camera crew, and then judged by a TV audience and an energetic host hell-bent on figuring out how much good it would do me, if I stopped buying jeans, handbags, and blue dresses (but not necessarily in that order). I mean, you just can’t stop buying jeans.
How I love a blue dress. Any shade will do – teal, robins-egg, navy, cobalt, azure, cerulean, turquoise, even cyan (although I only recognize it form Photoshop. And jeans. Also blue, the shade Cat Stevens was thinking about, I’m convinced, when he wrote in “Oh Very Young,“
“And though your dreams may toss and turn you now
They will vanish away like your daddy’s best jeans
Denim Blue fading up to the sky
And though you want him to last forever
You know he never will
And the patches make the goodbye harder still.”
I am beginning to remind myself of Alicia, the wife of Doc “Moonlight” Graham – a real person – who was played by Burt Lancaster in the movie, Field of Dreams. Alicia loved blue hats, and the story goes that when Doc Graham died in 1965, his office closet was filled with all the blue hats he hadn’t yet given her. That scene in the film, when the old man at the bar is telling James Earl Jones the story about Alicia’s hats always makes me cry.
No, the literati are not coming to party at my house, but like Independent columnist John Walsh’s friend Bella, I am acutely aware that “your collection of books can say terrible things about you.” Unlike Bella, I don’t rub shoulders with celebrities of the publishing world; nonetheless, I’m always a bit worried about the absence – and inclusion – of certain books on my shelves, not the least of which is a blue hardbound 1984, not the one by George Orwell, but my diary from the same year. This brings to mind Willy Russell’s Rita brilliantly portrayed by Julie Waters, as she shouts from the window of a train to Michael Caine’s Professor Frank Bryant, that wonderful line from Oscar Wilde‘s The Importance of Being Earnest, a play I was delighted to find, along with 20 brilliant comedies in a great first edition Cavalcade of Comedy at the 1996 VNSA booksale in Phoenix. I paid just two dollars for it.
“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train … Oscar Wilde”
To hear Rita deliver the line, begin the clip at 4:16 –
Anyway, all this talk of books began last weekend when I went to see the new The Great Gatsby with my best friend. Although she is much younger than I am, she has an atrocious memory, and couldn’t remember the plot from the book, not having read it since high school, which wasn’t that terribly long ago for her, all things considered. I had re-read it last year during my Post-Mastectomy Period (PMP), so Daisy and Nick, and Gatsby calling people “old sport” and all those lavish parties were still young and fresh in my head. Over dinner, we performed our post-mortem on the movie and then ventured off into a discussion of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, a superficial discussion really, because I had to admit to her that, in fact, I have never read anything by Ernest Hemingway. Never. I suppose to make me feel better, she told me she hated Charles Dickens. And then we both confessed that we hate Moby Dick. I also disclosed that I don’t like Les Miserables, and I even fell asleep during a performance of the musical version. I know. I’m treading dangerous waters now. It feels almost criminal to say out loud that the longest running musical leaves me cold, and downright treasonous to admit that I think James Joyce is, well, overrated. To my shame, I have never finished Ulysees, nor am I sure I ever really started it, given the many beginnings within its pages. Of Joyce’s “Dubliners” I only like “The Dead,” and were it not for Brodie’s Notes, which I imagine are roughly equivalent to the American Cliffs Notes, I don’t imagine I could have answered a single question about E.M. Forster’s Room with a View or Howard’s End. I do not like Virginia Woolf. I might even be a little afraid of her. I think the same might be true for George Eliot, who, until I was in college, assumed to be male. Then there’s Jane Austen. I know. This is definitely sacrilege, but Emma wore me out, and I didn’t pick up Pride and Prejudice until my PMP (see above). Even then, in the lingering haze from three days of Dilaudid coursing through my system, I just couldn’t understand what was so great about Mr. Darcy. Oblivious to what has been coined The Darcy Effect, there must be something wrong with me.
Since I’m telling the truth about my books as they sit there looking at me, waiting to be rearranged, I wonder, guiltily, if any of the fifth graders I taught over twenty years ago remember that spring morning when I announced the next class novel. Together, we would be reading Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. I passed out the books and began reading aloud. We soldiered through the first few pages, me reading with as much expression as I could muster, but we all knew the time was not right. Remembering I was in charge, I quietly told them to close their books and put them back on the shelf for another day (which never came that year). And, from my handbag, I pulled out my high school English textbook and read to them Liam O’Flaherty’s “The Sniper” instead, hoping that the last startling sentence of that story would teach all they needed to know about the tragedy of war. None of the parents complained that I had strayed from the curriculum and abandoned an American classic for an Irish short story, but then their children probably said “nothing” when asked what they did at school that day.
Even though I love listening to J.K. Rowling in interviews and agree with much of what she says about living and working, success and failure, I’m not sure why I never bought a Harry Potter book. Timing, probably. In the same way that Catcher in the Rye doesn’t work as well for a reader who has exited adolescence. My daughter says she read the first in the Potter series and didn’t like, it. She didn’t tell me why, but I know the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I remember my daughter read “Under the Hawthorne Tree,” for her first official book report. It is a book I recall with fondness from my childhood, the story of three children trying to survive the Irish Famine. She saw it in my bookcase, one of twenty books my mother collected for her, part of The Belfast Telegraph’s Children’s Collection, asked me about it, and knowing it would resonate with her sense of justice, I grabbed the opportunity to tell her about The Great Famine, knowing she is unlikely to learn about it in an Arizona classroom. As an aside, and somewhat ironically, a headline in last week’s Belfast Telegraph, Children Turn Away From Books in Favour of Reading Electronically, made me appreciate all the more, that my daughter still reads books made of paper. Speaking of Belfast, I wonder why nobody thought to require To Kill a Mockingbird for GCSE O level English in the 1980s. Although the setting was a small Alabama town in the 1930s, many of us in Northern Ireland could have learned a thing or two about fairness and goodness – about humanity – from Mockingbird, at a time when our country needed it so. Instead we trudged through Richard Church’s autobiography, Over the Bridge. Sheer torture.
With all of this off my chest, I feel better about the books I have carried with me over the years, my Choice of Poets textbook, my collections of Heaney’s poetry, the little blue book of Irish Short Stories, out-of-print Belfast Reviews, and old Rolling Stone and Life magazines. Still, I wish John Walsh was here to help the way he did when called upon to edit his friend’s library:
“I had to re-jig it, alphabetize it, eliminate the once-trendy, excise the cheesy and ill-advised, and bring together all the books that had been lying for years in bedroom, lavabo and kitchen and behind the sofa. My function was like that of Hercules cleaning out the Augean stables, until no trace of Paulo Coelho remained.”
Walsh points out that a proper bookcase, one in a mature middle-class household, should contain only books. Reference books do not belong there; rather, their place is close to a desk, and poetry needs its own section. Now we’re on to something. Knowing that you can only eat the elephant one bite at a time, and inspired by My Ideal Bookshelf, I began to fix my bookshelves with a nod to the women who have helped me find my way in the world with good humor and a sense of home, and some Bob Dylan for good measure:
The sshh … I’m reading coffee cup just happened to be sitting there when my daughter rendered, by hand, this drawing for my 50th birthday. Next, I made a little section for Seamus Heaney. Naturally. The little Irish cottage was a gift to my father over forty years ago. The wife of a Professor Coyle who lived in a house named “One Acre” on the Belfast Road, decided, well into her sixties, (then considered ‘a big age’) that she would learn to drive. As a favor, my father taught her, as he did many people in Antrim, and he never took a penny for doing so. Therefore, as a present, and knowing I am sure that it would appeal to my father’s love of things found in nature, Mrs. Coyle painted the little cottage on a bit of a spruce tree, the bark serving as an approximation of a thatched roof with smoke streaming from a turf fire. He passed it along to me some years ago, and it has been at home with my Heaney books ever since.
In a final coincidence, and with a flourish to end his day of transforming Bella’s library into a thing of beauty, John Walsh placed on her coffee table, “with a bookmark at page 397” a copy of Seamus Heaney’s Stepping Stones, a collection of conversations with my favorite poet. Impressive.
Stay tuned for an update on the state of my coffee table …
Update (but not about the coffee table)
I have written here before about Mr. Jones, my favorite teacher, the person who had such influence on my taste in music and books. In the kind of coincidence that happens only in real life, Mr. Jones was also my college friend Ruth’s daughter’s favorite teacher. All those years later …
P.S. Summer Reading: 200 Books Recommended by TEDsters.