The Archeology of my Bookcase

If you want to endear yourself to me when you come over to my house for the first time, notice and peruse my living room bookcase. My real bookcases are downstairs in my basement, but the two you see as you enter my door are a convocation of carefully chosen books designed to reveal things about me. Not that many people care but it is offered as initial hint about where my interests lie. Few do more than glance at it in passing, but these selected books and realia are camped there purposely, ready to disclose much about me. I sigh every time I invite someone over and they pass it by.

If we move downstairs to my real bookcases one can do a proper archeology of my life. Upstairs, is akin to a museum display in which shards from my past have been chosen to rough out a light sketch of my self through a careful gleaning of representative textual artifacts. But downstairs, like the dusty cabinets that hold the real treasures of any museum, one can suss out much more about me. A depth psychologist could see those shelves as holding a kind of paper and ink unconscious, one hosting many of the archetypes and motifs that structure, condition, and formulate whatever it is I’ve become. This is possible because books have so infused my life and so guided and nurtured everything about me that in a very real way I am these books.

Shall we excavate a bit? Of course digging through my reading past won’t be properly structured as currently arraigned on the shelves, so I imaginatively order the books in chronological order, not by publication date, but by date they came into my life (note that I was careful not to say ‘reading’ date, as at least half of the books I own were never read).

The first thing you’ll notice as a library archaeologist is that the differing strata of related books appear in clusters—bundles of avocations and interests that span months, years or even decades. There is the Nibley phase. Books like Lehi in the Desert and the World of Jaredites are folded in with books on Near Eastern civilization and archeology. This transitions into a new layer of pursuits into New Testament studies. If one presses on you can follow this trajectory into my interests in alchemy, Medieval esoteric studies as books by and about John Dee, Paracelsus, Bruno, start to dominate as my interest vis-à-vis in that moment when science began to emerge from magic and takes center stage in the transformational figure of Roger Bacon. But in addition to the historical flow that seems to typify this stratigraphy, there are other minor themes and variations in philosophy of biology, existentialism with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche suddenly appearing—shuffled together like two very different decks of playing cards.

Many of the layers seem worrisome to me now. They seem indicative of a lack of follow-though and commitment. A kind of starts-things-but-never-finishes-them personality flaw. They were supposed to turn into projects, papers, novels even. Something tangible. A contribution to the world. What happened that so many of the strata end so suddenly without flowering into some physical artifact that would endure beyond my toying with it? Is it just a fact that, like civilizations, most of my reading interests just fizzle out in the end? Is every project of mine doomed to follow the Etruscans into obscurity? But no. Not completely. Scattered in the many layers are a few minor contributions. But I wonder: Why have so many of these movements in my life produced so few successes? Is it a numbers game like the milky eggs of a echinoderm that are scattered in the seas by the hundreds of millions in hopes for just a couple of successful offspring? Or am I just too fragmented to focus long enough to find some depth?

Distributed in the thick layers of major strata and concurrent with these major themes and movements are the husks of seeds that sustain and nourish me. Fiction. Would I have survived graduate school and the despair and depression that looked to destroy me in my fifth year without Tad Williams’ Memory and Thorn series to rescue me? Without George Eliot would the ‘I’ I’ve become even be possible? My time with Adam Bede, Silas Marner, Romola, The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda, Middlemarch, Scenes of a Clerical Life, are among my life’s favorite moments. These have not only provided meaning, but richness and grace. These undergird the substrate of my life and add depth and meaning. I see Science Fiction and Fantasy scattered all over the place. Most important, Tolkien (I read him long before his current cachet. When I read him, he was mentioned in the same breath as favorite authors Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan, as odd as that sounds now). Magic realism is another undercurrent that becomes obvious. And poetry! How would I have lived without poetry? There, on the top shelf, are arraigned rows upon rows of poetry. Collections—the annual Best American Poetry from 1991 on, and Mary Oliver. Oh, yes. Mary Oliver is indispensable. Comic books? Of course! Spiderman mostly and more recently Buffy (I just got my hands on all of the season 8 issues, you may drool if you feel it appropriate). Children’s literature is scattered on these shelves in rich abundance. Some, I read to my children and became part of my family’s shared culture, but much of it was just read and enjoyed for its own sake. My favorite book in the world is Abel’s Island by William Steig.

I notice on the shelf that there are many books I know I’ve read, but I have absolute no memory their content. Perhaps a few images remain. The outline of a plot, perhaps. Or, I might recall a now fuzzy scene with an affective aura hovering about it that invokes a furtive approach to the book’s original emotional encounter. But nothing distinct. More like the fragments of a dream grasped at, but largely forgotten as one emerges from sleep (for extra credit, who was I imitating there?). I wonder why I should bother to read at all when the memories of the books I read seem to fade so quickly. What was the point beyond some entertainment or a few moments of pleasure? But if I consider not the content of the book, but its meaning to my life, I am forced to admit that these books have helped form and shape who I am. Even though the specific effects of a particular book are lost, at one time this book put me on new courses, pointed me towards new trajectories, and unlocked new untapped futures—if just to encourage or discourage reading other books like it. Had the book not stood in that place, at that time in my life and diverted or directed the channels of my thought and action, I would have become a very different person than I am. Many of these books have acted as bifurcations splitting my life into one future rather than another. So while now I can hardly remember a thing about some of the books I’ve read, because I read them, things have emerged that otherwise would not. Or so I suppose. One mustn’t be too dogmatic about destiny’s playground.

And the scriptures? Are they a strata? Or are they scattered randomly like fiction? No they are the matrix in which all these things are imbedded. The rock that gives stability and structure to the other layers.

I could stand to loose many things in this world. Books are not one of them. Everything from the colors of their covers, to the smell of a Ballantine fantasy book, I adore. Books have added to the richness and variety of my life. I am the books I’ve read.

So, if you ever come over. Please take a moment to look at my books. If you ask to go downstairs and see my other books I am yours forever.

Comments

  1. Your words fill me with many emotions: longing for indulgent conversation; sorrow at the constraints my choices have placed on my time; joy in spite of it; humility at my vast ignorance; hope in the prospects of the future; and gratitude to know that you exist. I asked my younger sister, when she gave up horse riding lessons, whether she was sad to be quitting. She replied that her passion didn’t run deeply enough to commit her life to horses, but that it made her happy to know there were others who did.

  2. Isn’t there another one in the list — Memory, Thorn, and something else? I never got past book one of that series. Beautiful writing, but I like books where things actually happen more than once every 300 pages.

    I always like it when visitors look at my books — it’s lots of fun. I also worry that ward members will see them and gasp (_From Housewife to Heretic_?) But so far, the only ward member who’s even glanced at them had been a Sunstone reading sister who thought they were just fine.

  3. I could stand to loose many things in this world. Books are not one of them. Everything from the colors of their covers, to the smell of a Ballantine fantasy book, I adore. Books have added to the richness and variety of my life. I am the books I’ve read.

    Amen, Brother P, Amen.

  4. This book cheered my soul; thank you.

    Though I am still a student (an undergraduate even!), I still take immense pride in my book collection. Like you, I have a bookcase out in my living room of books I want everyone to see. I just realized it now, but perhaps it is because I feel I have to be defensive for my many books some members may not approve of that I have the 15-volume Teachings of the Prophets series front and center–as if I have to prove my faithfulness.

  5. …er, “this book cheered my soul” should read “this post cheered my soul”

  6. kristine N says:

    Beautifully expressed. I think I must have the same character flaw with regard to finishing things. My husband makes furniture; when he’s gone, there will still be some evidence he was here. Me? Not so much. A bunch of discarded projects and materials I collected and then never did anything with. I know someday there will be a great yard sale where people will wonder what I ever hoped to do with all the stuff I gathered and never did anything with.

  7. I have always felt I was raised by the books I read as a child, more than by my parents. The first thing I do in anyone’s home is look for books. Amazing how few homes have any visible these days.

    In 2007 I decided to re-read the books on my ‘real’ bookshelves. I wanted to see if they really were keepers or if I had outgrown them. I am down to the last group and so far they have held up remarkably well.

    Thanks for this post. It is nice to know there are more like me!

  8. I know just what you mean.

    I treasure my books and the story they tell about who I am.

  9. I could stand to lose many things in this world. Books are not one of them. Everything from the colors of their covers, to the smell of a Ballantine fantasy book, I adore. Books have added to the richness and variety of my life. I am the books I’ve read.

    I feel exactly the same way, and couldn’t put this sentiment any better. I have made myself a small library in one of our attic rooms, and I can often be found up there just looking at my books. My family think I’m weird.

  10. I had a special bookshelf in our main living area for a while…then I felt too pretentious about it and moved all the books back to my main bookshelves in the study. I may not have, if I had ever caught anyone looking at them, but I never did. Disappointing and damaging to my self confidence all at the same time! I’m glad to know I’m not alone in thinking this is a terrific way for people to get to know each other.

  11. i just noticed a new bio of Paracelsus from I think Yale. is it any good?

  12. Danielle Mouritsen says:

    Steven,

    Although I have a “no comment” policy on LDS blogs (been a regular, i.e. daily, lurker since I started grad school a few years back), I have to say that you are my absolute favorite and I couldn’t resist chiming in this time. You are too much of a kindred spirit.

    I use my bookshelves as a sort of litmus test for potential friendships when I have guests in my home. It usually offers me a quick glimpse of shared interests and the reading backgrounds (and sometimes minds) of my guests as well. I can always tell that there is real potential when new people head straight over to see what I’ve got in my book collection. Of course, my field of study is literature, so I’m always keen to bond over books. I keep waiting for someone with a really good sense of humor to notice and comment upon my choice to put a copy of Mormon Doctrine in between No Man Knows My History and In Sacred Loneliness. So far, no snorts of laughter… and I try to have a new family from the ward over for dinner once a week. My husband is in the military and we move every 1-2 years, so I’ve had lots of chances to see if anyone else would snicker about this. Alas, none so far. Ah well.

    Thank you for all of your wonderful posts. I always anticipate reading your fantastic sense of humor! I seem to recall (from the deep recesses of lurkerdom) that you are currently in Europe. If you’re ever passing through Bamberg, Germany, you’re welcome to a home-cooked meal and a chance to peruse and smile at my arrangement of a (much-less-impressive-I’m-sure) collection of books!

  13. Danielle, Thank you for your kind words! I wish I were still in Europe so I could take you up on your offer of a home cooked meal, but I’m back at BYU. But if I ever do get to visit I will definitely look at your bookcase!

  14. Thank you for sharing that. I feel the same. As I do not have quite a large collection of books, the ones that are in my small apartment mean so much to me. From books I have gained much of who I am, and what direction in my life I am to take.

    My father was the one who gave me my love of reading. When I was eight, I believe he gave me my first comic book. He has given me books with little messages in them which I still have, and treasure, and am sure he doesn’t remember many of them.

    I often am found sitting in front of my book self, (Yes, only one), thumbing through books like significant memories. They have given me my love of reading, learning, and writing.

  15. Steve, you should put it up on Shelfari!

  16. Antonio Parr says:

    This was a particularly enjoyable post. There is most definitely a psychology to book collecting and home libraries, and I appreciate StevenP’s window into his world.

  17. Antonio, I seem to remember that our friendship was cemented over your bookcase. If people don’t want to look at my books, they are lost to me.

  18. Please don’t take offense at this since I quite like your posts, but you’ve inspired me to move all of my books from public view.

  19. I love to look at other people’s bookshelves! When I visit people who only have a handful of old college textbooks and one or two random paperback novels, I always hope that they have a secret stash of books elsewhere on the premises that they just aren’t telling me about.

    When my husband and I got married and combined our respective (and considerable) libraries, we purposely placed my Molly Ivins books next to his Rush Limbaugh books. It was like Seinfeld’s black & white cookie. We were richer for the diversity.

    His Star Wars novels are now relegated to their own shelf, however.

  20. I also worry that ward members will see them and gasp (_From Housewife to Heretic_?)

    I know that feeling well. Mel makes me hide “The Sex Life of Brigham Young” whenever her parents come to town. I don’t know why–they don’t pay any attention to my books.

  21. Peter LLC says:

    This thread is worthless without pics.

  22. SteveP, A kindred spirit, perhaps, because you know Richard Brautigan. I read Tolkien for the first time in the late 60’s as I was finishing high school, including devouring all the appendices. No bookshelves in my living room (that space is taken up by guitars), but a large pile on the coffee table, a large pile by my side of the bed, and then bookshelves in the study, the family room, a couple of the bedrooms, and boxes of books in the garage and all the closets. My wife finally has come to understand that most of these books are like pets, and I can’t bring myself to breakup the litter, even the runts.

  23. We’ve lived in our current house (rented) for 3 1/2 years. This is the first time in my adult life that I’ve actually had both the room and the bookcases to have all of my books out, rather than stashed in boxes in a garage, attic, storage locker, or closet.

    It’s wonderful.

    They’re almost all downstairs, in some 18 bookcases. I have a shelving/categorizing system that allows me to find any given book within a matter of seconds. And I still buy books at a regular clip, perhaps more than I should (I have about 20 books on my nightstand that, in theory, I’m currently reading).

    Sandra (my sweet wife) likes to tell the story of an incident several years after we married. Our oldest son moved out of the house (ok, he was kicked out, but I gave him [sigh] my ’67 Mustang to he’d have transportation and a place to sleep). The room he had been using as a bedroom was actually designed to be a small mainfloor office and had built-in bookshelves. Once the room was cleared out, I went out to the garage and pulled in a dozen or so boxes of books, unpacked them, and put them on the shelves. Sandra came walking by a little bit later and found me looking at the newly-liberated books and smiling.

    And, yes, I like it when people ask to go downstairs and see my books. ..bruce..

  24. Thank you Steven P. Youur essay made my day. I too jump around creating a wide variety of thin layers of knowledge in my brain. Some information stays tucked away in my mind and most just passes on out the other side. Thanks for sharing. You gave me something to mull over today.

  25. Yes. Thank you. No one close to me seems to understand why this month has been difficult—it’s the month I started selling my books online to pay the bills. Nothing too drastic, just ones I know I’ll never read again, but still …

  26. I’m sometimes sloppy about organizing my own bookcases, but I love looking at other people’s bookcases to see what they’re interested in (and if they have any books I’ve read or have been meaning to learn more about). Checking out the booksheves was my first stop on my recent visit to my parents’ house… ;)

  27. Other people’s bookshelves are the first thing I look at when I am in their home. Oh you don’t have any books or bookshelves in the “public” areas of the house? I am silently judging you.

    No I’m serious.

  28. I have similar habits – a bookcase in the living room for bait and the good stuff elsewhere in the house. I also write a note in each book I acquire telling the date and where I was when it came into my hands and I also place my children’s drawings and notes in books and also notes from friends and art opening and funeral announcements. When I go back and browse through my books I find surprises that I had forgotten about and in theory my children, when I am gone and they are old, could reconstruct a life of where I was and what I was thinking – if they care to……..

  29. I’ll show you my bookcases if you’ll show me yours.

  30. No Name This Time says:

    I used to have a shelf in my front room where I put the books I wanted people to see. Then I stopped giving a damn what people thought and I cherish them all to myself in my back room.

    Judge away.

  31. Your bookcase tour was very nostalgic for me. I grew up in a house that was more library than home. Now my husband and I are close to creating the same thing! You would find me a rather dull guest, I fear. I would head straight for your shelves and lose myself therein until you were obliged to remind me of your bedtime. It was also a wake-up call! I’m heading for the front room right now to figure out what those bookcases say about me!

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