Living with Books

When I ride the train, the subway, walk on a beach – and see someone reading, I always want to know – what?  When people are photographed or interviewed on television in front of a bookcase, I try to make out what titles are on their shelves. Because I work in a bookstore? Maybe, but also because I am nosy – it is as if I’m sneaking a peek at who this person really is by checking out their books.

My own bookshelves are packed to capacity – including too many books I have yet to read. Will I ever? There are titles that I feel like I should read — a great example being a huge tome: Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia by Karl E. Meyer and Shari Blair Brysac.  Autographed by these local authors and scholars – I do want to read it for a better understanding of this volatile region we have been so mired in – and so it stays and I think: one day. The same ‘should’ keeps From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman on my shelf for years.  I cannot let go of these books nor my good intention to read them but other books always jump the reading queue.

Then there are the books I may want for reference – that get yanked from the shelf about once a year or so – Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide by Goldberg and The Art Book – a book published by Phaidon door-stop sized book I picked up once at a tag sale. It’s a fast-food kind of look at the history of art.  I have more cherished art and photography books I also found on sale and could not resist – the most recent find being Andy Goldsworthy’s Passage – this remarkable sculptor’s poetic works are created out of nature – powerful works of time and space – some of stone but many others of ice, leaves, the tides and now, only a photograph remains.  It sits on a table in my living room and I have looked at it maybe once but I am so glad it is there.

I have the powerful photography books by my friend Ron Haviv – his important documentation of wars including Blood and Honey: A Balkan War Journal – the war I knew. My Balkan titles can take up their own shelf and I have read them all, hungering to understand the madness that was my life for four years.  My collection began back in 1992 with Rebecca West’s classic Black Lamb, Grey Falcon and Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia. Later on, I added David Rieff’s Slaughterhouse, Peter Maass’s Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War. And perhaps the one most poignant for me, My War Gone By, I Miss it So by Anthony Lloyd – a powerful memoir of addiction to war and to drugs.  

The addiction self-help books have mostly been purged – in the hopes that the problem is also gone out of my life, I have passed them on to others who might find them useful.  But I have kept the memoirs – Beautiful Boy by David Sheff, Mary Karr’s Lit.

Over the years I have amassed a collection of signed titles that are impossible to part with – I see them as a legacy for my daughter. J. K. Rowling – the second Harry Potter title signed at an event at the store early on in her success.  Still, it was like hosting a rock star but she was lovely, signing well over a thousand books and looking every child in the eye and sharing a chat while signing with her arm in a brace.  My inscribed copies of Angela’s Ashes and Teacher Man will always have a revered place on my shelf with warm memories of my encounters with Frank McCourt.

There are books I can and should cull: novels I have read and never will again. Outdated travel guides – to Bali, Martha’s Vineyard (I have not been since high school), the Florida Keys (I have never been) parenting guides, cookbooks I never open – but as my eye scans the dusty spines, I think of a reason why I want each one to stay – a memory, the possibility I might one day need to check on the correct Serbo-Croatian word or refer to that book The Brain. I won’t though — the internet is too easy.  At least, I will dust them.

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