Friday, 24 December 2010

The Bookcase

In every book there are two stories waiting to be told; one emerges from the print on the pages, the other comes along with the perceptions and experiences of its reader. So it is then, that the shelves of a bookcase can hold a whole world of stories and a whole lifetime of meaning.

When I was a child we had only a couple of small bookcases - most of my books came from the library and had to go back, they didn't need their own home at ours. But before very long, I grew up and got married. I started to create our family home, to fill the second-hand teak units with an ever increasing collection of paperbacks supplemented by our favourite picture books for the children's bedtime stories.

In my mid-thirties, when I found myself starting all over, with a new life in a new home, I bought a bookcase. It was the first piece of furniture I'd ever bought with my own money, just for me.

I took my time filling its six shelves. The top shelf was for poetry books. Each one with corners turned down where I'd found a poem that expressed the anger and loneliness I felt. Below that, the penguin classics - a whole shelf of black spines with white lettering; nineteenth century novels, complete sets of George Eliot and Jane Austen, Tolstoy and Turgenev, cheek by jowl with Hardy and Dickens. Me trying to convince my few visitors I was well-read, intelligent.

Then came three shelves of the books I'd actually read, arranged not by author or genre, but by the colour of their spine. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News sat next to the faintly intellectual blue spine of Simone de Beauvoir; below that a group of old orange Penguin books including Thackeray's Vanity Fair that I'd won as a prize at school. At the bottom was the white shelf. It's surprising how many books have white spines, how few are yellow or purple. Of course not all the books were single-colour, and not all the same shade, but I spent hours arranging and rearranging the shades, finding the right tones that could sit together. When I was a kid I loved those wide flat tins of colouring pencils, 40 shades from white, through the rainbow, to the special gold and silver at the end. I'd spend nearly as much time sorting out their order in the tin as I did colouring, some days it was like that with the books.

If you picked up any of these books and turned the pages, the chances are a ticket would fall to the floor. A train pass or a boarding card, sometimes a theatre or concert ticket, each a symbol of things I'd been doing at the time I read the book, each a reminder of escape or perhaps truancy from expectation. If you looked to the back of Sebastian Faulk's Birdsong, you'd see the edges of a page roughly torn out, used to write a love letter on a beach.

When Philip and I first got together, I loved that he'd read more widely than me, that I could talk to him about poetry, that he'd be able not only to name a poem, but also to quote it and identify the author.  I welcomed the books he brought with him, that I might get to read myself someday. At first I resisted their entry to my bookcase, but over time, things changed. Suddenly the top shelf contained travel guides as well as poetry, the third was filled with cookery books. Colour-arranging went out the window, I began to relax into myself, the odd Agatha Christie story snuck in next to an allotment guide, I added my collection of Rowan knitting patterns, the pile of programmes from Bromley football matches began to grow.

Ten years later, the bookcase continues to change. The edges of the shelves have filled with the relics of daily life. As I sit here now I can see the incense burner, an empty perfume bottle, a set of drill-bits and a knife sharpener, some mints, a pair of sunglasses and an empty camera film holder.  We continue to accumulate books, read them, love them, then give them away when we run out of room. I was horrified when Philip first suggested a book-give-away - even if I was never going to read them again, it felt like my books were part of me, defined how I felt about myself. But once I'd tried it, seen the pleasure on people's faces as they browsed through the boxes we put outside on the bench, I began to see the appeal - and it's becoming a regular event.

The bookcase does still tell a story about my life, but it's become a story of change and possibility, of mixing and sharing.

42 comments:

Mr London Street said...

What a gorgeous piece of writing this is. One of the many things I like about your best stuff is that it's incredibly clever but never beats you over the head with its cleverness. You cover a lot of ground here and a lot of different topics very gracefully. I think it really is a moment when you realise your life is completely intermingled with somebody else's, when your paperbacks and theirs rub shoulders on a shelf.

caterpillar said...

The bookshelf you have described is so varied and interesting...We never had a book shelf at our home too...but I'm trying to make a collection of book in my home...though I'm a bit selfish when it comes to my books...I'd never be able to give away one...or so I think right now...

Baglady said...

Wonderful stuff. I love the idea of your book collections merging together and how you used top arrange then by colour but now it's more relaxed.

When wet have a clear out we take our books to Oxfam -I get a feeling of pride if they make it to the display in the window.

Michelle Saunderson said...

I always love to check out bookshelves when I visit someone. It is as if I am looking into their soul to see what they cherish.

The fearless threader said...

It sounds exactly like my bookshelves, all the daily clutter and minutae of life just popped onto it. Mine is overflowing with books, but I am unable to part with any of them, I love each and every one, have memories which are stimulated by the shape, feel and smell of the pages and i just cannot let go of them. You are very brave to be able to let them go.

Starlight said...

Lovely! And the bookcase is very nice, I like it a lot.
I really like how you described changes in your life and even more how you adjusted yourself to a new husband and a new life. And it seems to me that you appreciate the experiences you got before you met him and you also appreciate how he influenced your life.

Pat said...

Definition of a good marriage: when you can share your precious book shelves?

The Idiot Gardener said...

A very well observed piece, and if I'm not mistaken you also have a copy of David Thompson's Thai Food.

Chris David Richards said...

The arrangement of books is a careful process, sometimes making no sense to anyone but the owner.

Liz said...

I smiled right the way through that, Sharon. Sounds a lot like our book case - bits and pieces of this and that. And what's a house without a Thackeray. ;~)

I hope you, Philip, Megan and the rest of your clan have a very Merry Christmas.

Penny Dreadful said...

For some of us bookshelves are a kind of extension of ourselves, it is pretty personal. Mr D and I had a major falling out over books and placement of when we first moved in together, it wasn't really resolved until over a year later.

Happy Frog and I said...

What a great post. I found the bookshelves but also the CD racks really showed the development of my relationship.

I hope you have a lovely Christmas and New Year. :-)

caterpillar said...

Hey Sharon, Merry Christmas!

Charlie said...

I finished reading Pat Conroy's new book My Reading Life just a couple days ago. (He's the author of The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides.)

Your post, Sharon, is much better than his book.

Philip said...

Sharon, I thought that was just stunning.
Philip

Shopgirl said...

This is beautiful. It reminds me the vanity of my youth and the maturity that came with a few mess ups in the road of life. A book case that reflects so much, just brilliant.

Sharon Longworth said...

MLS - thank you, I'm so pleased you liked it. I worked on trying to get the balance right in this one between the number of threads and the detail included. Your comment makes me think I did ok - thank you.

Caterpillar - building a book collection is a great place to be - I hope it brings you much pleasure. What would be your 'must-have' book?

Baglady - Now I've got used to it, I like the idea of other people taking our books home, wondering where they'll end up and who will read them, what their homes and bookcases are like.

Sharon Longworth said...

Michelle, I think there is a little of people's souls in their book collections.

The Fearless Threader - it took my beloved a very long time to persuade me to give any away, and there are still a few I wouldn't part with under any circumstances - Vanity Fair for example. What would be your 'last to let go of'?

Starlight - thank you!. That's the great thing about writing a blog, it makes us think about and appreciate our experiences.

Sharon Longworth said...

Pat, I do hope so!

IG - thank you, and yes, you are absolutely right it is indeed David Thompson's Thai Food. Unfortunately I can't claim to be the cook in our house, but luckily my beloved is a very good one, so I regularly benefit.

Chris - you've made me wonder how you arrange yours?

Sharon Longworth said...

Liz, thank you - I'm really glad it made you smile. Hope you had a grand christmas too - I look forward to reading about it.

Penny Dreadful - I'm glad you and Mr D sorted out the book thing eventually. P still has a whole mountain of books that we've never found a proper home for, but perhaps we will one day...

Happy Frog - the CDs (and vinyl) take up almost as much space in our house as the books - but interestingly they're nearly all Philips, and he has never suggested giving any of them away... Luckily it's mostly downloads nowadays, so the collection has stopped expanding.

Sharon Longworth said...

Charlie - thank you - that's a comment to treasure, I'm so glad you liked it.

Philip - Thank you, it means a lot to me when you like what I've written.

Shopgirl - I've definitely had the vanity, and I'm aiming for the maturity! Thank you for your very kind comment.

chocolategirl64 said...

I like to peep at other people's bookcases: they are so telling: mine too is peppered little objects, the books hiding bookmarks, choc wrappers and keepsakes:
my books had been in storage for a few years, so when I had some new shelves to put them on .... I arranged them in a rainbow, just like your pencil tin:
it looks divine but I have to picture the book and it's colour if I want to find it!
l love your idea of a bookcase evolving, thank you for sharing:

Eryl said...

Wonderful: a love story seen through a bookcase. It sounds like the travel guides and poetry, fiction and allotment guides, classics and football programmes all rubbing together have spawned beautiful babies in your mind.

Happy new year to you and your brood.

outdoor.mom said...

lovely blog!! just dropping by :-)

Helle Kristine Tumbridge said...

Oh my, giving away books? The thought makes my palm sweat. And that of my partner's too, which is why our shelves are over-run by books...
Loved reading this post. I have aalways believed a bookcase to be a very important part of a room.

otherworldlyone said...

Wow. I've been diving into my reader, trying to catch up with everyone after my holiday, feeling a bit over-extended...and then I read this.

It made me slow down and relax.

So I went back and read it again. And I think I'll stop here...finish reading the others tomorrow. This was beautifully written, Sharon. Definitely one of my all-time favorites.

*~Christine~* said...

Came across your blog through Starlight's blog. I love love love this entry. I am an English major and can truly appreciate the value and meaning of the books we read and live with. Happy New Year!!

http://thesilverlining122.blogspot.com/

Bth said...

This has to be one of my favourite posts of yours, Sharon. It's so true, my books pin point key episodes in my life - I love having them on my bookshelf for all to see. Books are brilliant. Who could possibly want a Kimble?!

Sharon Longworth said...

Chocolate girl, I love that I'm not the only one to sort by colour. At one time it got to the stage where, if someone asked me if I'd got a certain book, I'd respond 'Oh yes, it's blue/red/green...

Eryl, Thank you - I like the idea of beautiful baby books. Is that where the term 'booklets' comes from?

Outdoor Mom - thank you - both for dropping by and for leaving a comment - I hope you'll come round again soon!

Sharon Longworth said...

HKT, I know - it's a terrible thought and I simply couldn't do it for a very long time, but once I'd given away a few it became much easier, and the consolation is that it gives us room for more...

OWO - I can't tell you how much I smiled when I read your comment - thank you.

Christine - thank you for visiting and for leaving such a kind comment. And a very happy New Year to you too!

Bth - I can't imagine anything electronic replacing the look and feel of real books - but then I never imagined I'd spend so much time talking to people via this blog either...

Jane said...

I first read this post on xmas eve and have returned to it several times over the holiday. Just beautiful.

justjulia said...

a wonderful piece of writing. it made me think about my bookshelves and my relationship with its inhabitants.

it is so hard to part with them. I am glad you have found a way. I envy the woman who can take hers to Oxfam. In Japan they end up orphans that no one ever reads again or reprocessed into cardboard. very sad.

Hope 2011 is full of wonderful reading and writing for you.

alphawoman said...

I truly enjoyed this and look forward to reading more. I love the idea of giving away books. I took a sack to my Mothers house to share the rest of my reading hungry family. I have a garage full of books and am getting ready to move (yet again) so I may just catalog them and do the Craigslist thing. I digress, I can't wait to read more.

Tasha said...

Really great read - looking at my own bookshelves makes me realize how much they have changed over the years, as we have. I will check back to your blog again for sure!

Juliet Winters said...

You get it. You are one of the true book lovers out there, congratulations! Enjoy your reading.
Isn't it astounding that every single book ever written, that we will ever read was made from a combination of only 24 letters?

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