For reasons I can’t quite fathom — actually, they are totally fathomable, but I am in denial — I threw myself into a very rigorous office cleaning yesterday and today. And, possibly, into tomorrow. I am lucky enough to have a nice office with lots of shelf space. But it’s never enough, is it? So I began weeding my book collection into two piles — “Give Away” and “Keep but Box.”
Years ago, while I was interning at the Atlanta Constitution, I remember the television critic — Richard Zoglin, at Time last I heard — speaking about a press tour in California, where journalists were given entry to the home of Larry Hagman, then at the height of his “Dallas” fame. He said that every critic made a beeline for Hagman’s bookshelves and began writing down the titles, because that was one of the few personal details available to them. I was 21 at the time, planning on being a journalist, not expecting to be judged on my bookshelves. But I think the anecdote made an impression on me because I’ve always been too aware of what my bookshelves tell the world about me. Yesterday, I decided that yardstick had to go. If I could not imagine myself opening a certain book in the next five years, it should be boxed up. Alice Walker’s entire pre-Color Purple backlist hit the box. Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal Dreams,” but not “The Poisonwood Bible.” (I have TWO first editions of “The Bean Trees,” but those are in the living room, which is reserved for hardcover classics.) I thought hard about an Alison Lurie, the one about Key West, and an Ann Beattie, but granted them last-minute reprieves. And so I went, descending into chaos in order to leave it. Have you ever seen the adage, “Sing as if No One Is Listening”? I decided that my bookshelves needed to please only me, not send out a message of my general fabulousness.
And I was cruel, at times, boxing up books by friends. But you know what? I seldom re-visit crime fiction. Besides, I urge anyone reading this — box me up! Or, better yet, give me away!
(It was interesting to see which crime novels I couldn’t banish. Anything by Peter Robinson. Many others, too. Don’t make me name more names.)
Whenever I’m communing with my book collection, I play odd games. First, I contemplate which letter of the alphabet I would choose, if limited to one. I usually pick “C.” Calvino, Camus, Clemens, Chandler, Cather, Chabon, Chekhov, Carey, Caldwell (I have a very cool paperback version of God’s Little Acre). James M. Cain. Crumley and Cook.
Then I notice which books end up side by side. Gischler and Goodis seem a good fit. Also Pendarvis and Pendle, the latter of whom wrote a wonderful novel about Millard Fillmore. I was worried when William Gay couldn’t stay in Tom Franklin’s neighborhood, but think he found a good companion in Mary Gaitskill. Frankln’s placement between Paula Fox and Jonathan Franzen? Much more problematic. Patrick Dennis and Peter Devries are made for each other. (Although, technically, I guess Dennis should be under “T” for Tanner, his real name.)
As I worked, I was listening to NPR. I am nothing if not a cultural cliche. (I mock my own NPR habit in the New York Times serial. Starting Sunday! Seriously!) Garrison Keillor came on with his Writer’s Almanac, and noted it was the birthday of three writers: Alison Lurie, Sarah Orne Jewett and Sally Benson. Keepers all in my system. But I wish more people knew the work of Benson, whose New Yorker stories were gathered in a collection called “Junior Miss.” (She also wrote the book that was the basis of “Meet Me in St. Louis.”) Heck, I wish it was possible to imagine a New Yorker that still ran the kind of short fiction that Benson wrote, about an ordinary adolescent girl on the Upper East Side. My hunch is that the only ordinary adolescent girls considered sufficiently interesting by the New Yorker’s standards are named Bristol Palin.
Of course, every single children’s title made the cut. Even Rosamond DuJardin. In fact, they were moved to the most prominent shelf, the one above my desk. And I started re-reading “Ramona the Pest.” Which — let’s just say it — is essentially “Anna Karenina” written at third-grade level. The passion! The errors in judgment! The love of Davy, the antipathy toward Susan! ONLY BABIES CRY IN THE MUSH POT. I’m sorry, but I’ve been corresponding with Lizzie “Fine Lines” Skurnick this afternoon, and the tone is infectious.
What story would your bookshelves tell about you? And do you care?
ETA: Website has been updated. (See link above.) It has the restaurant info for all you Bouchercon attendees.