The Here and Now

Sometimes I write 5 times a day, sometimes I'll write 5 times a month. Either way, I hope you'll come back and check up on me :) If you're not sure whether you want to stay or go, read my About Me dohickey.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Of course, I haven't yet been able to think of anything worth writing here (no CLUE where all those brilliant ideas I had before I started this thing have gone to!), but I ran across this little article about books, and the thought we may or may not place into the handling of them, in my July issue of O! yesterday. So I'm typing it out for your perusal, with the formatting as close to the original as possible. Enjoy.


Shelf Awareness

Do you alphabetize your books, treat them as decorative objets, or live in constant danger of a giant bookslide? How we handle our books speaks volumes about who we are. Deborah Way asks a few writers how their libraries stack up.

In college I spent a lot of time with Virginia Woolf, and when I was done, I was done. Maybe it's because I wrote my senior essay on her when I would rather have been out playing. Or because the finished product showed exactly how little effort I put forth. Or because no matter how much she excited my English-major brain, reading Woolf was always more labor than love. Whatever the reason, she became a de-acquired taste, and 20 years later, I'm still punishing her. While the vast majority of my books live in my living room, where the action is, Woolf has been exiled to the front hallway with Thucydides and the other old bores.

I hang on to her, though, because as much as I shudder to think of rereading those novels and essays, I did read them in the first place. As the writer Lee Martin says of the books he can't bring himself to pitch, "They're still part of my book-gathering record."

What to do with books-with their sheer physical presence--is a question that plagues and delights writers, most of whom have, if not theories, as least strong opinions on the subject. Martin, who was a memoirist before he was a novelist, treats his library like an anthropological trove. Books are evidence of bygone interests and tastes; bookmarks--a Peanuts cartoon, a sheet of Duncan yo-yo tricks--are artifacts; and the shelves themselves, repositories for relics with narrative powers of their own: "a rock from the murder scene that became part of my latest novel, a handbell my mother used when she was a teacher in a one-room school, an iron hammer my father could screw into the end of his prosthetic arm."

Let's hope that the journalist Caitlin Flanagan never visits Martin. Flanagan is the daughter of the late writer and scholar Thomas Flanagan, and she believes--with imperious certainty--in following "all the old rules." "Although it looks beautiful," she says, "the bookcase is not a decorating element, so no knicknacks! The contents and arrangement of one's bookshelves are vital clues to one's interests and education. Anyone worth her salt will walk straight to a bookcase when she visits, so you'd better be ready! The shelves should be full but not crammed. The spines must be flush with the edge of the case. The books should be arranged by subject or author, and they should impress and slightly intimidate."

And then there's Steve Almond, author of Candyfreak, who says, "I don't give a rat's ass what my bookshelves look like. I just want them to contain books that rock me and might do the same for my pals."

Alone among writers I know, Almond still borrows from the library. ("The important thing is to keep the book in your mind, not on your property," he says.) That's one answer to the challenge faced by all pathological readers: how to avoid living in a home so overrun by books that, as the poet Andrew Hudgins describes, they're "draped on the headboard like laundry on a line." Though he aspires to Flanagan-esque order, Hudgins falls far short of the ideal. "When I have room, I front books up to the edge of the shelves as I was taught when I stocked Nilla Wafers and Nutter Butters," he says. "But many are shelved double deep, with more books piled on top. I find it cozy. And when the bookcases are on exterior walls, surely the books provide good insulation."

For other writers, there's only one answer to book proliferation: move. In the math of literature lovers, more space equals more room for books. Or in the case of novelist and journalist Jennifer Egan, more room where it counts. Unlike most writers, for whom a library is very much a thing to be shared, Egan likes to keep her books to herself. "There is something private, to me," she says, "about what I have read and loved--not to mention what I am ashamed not to have read--that makes me prefer to keep my books in an area that isn't completely public. When I lived in a studio apartment, this wasn't possible, but now that I've moved, I've been able to disentangle the books from the public space."

The sense of books as inviolate extends to the way Egan reads. "I used to mark passages of interest, but I found that I was so offended and distracted by the markings that I couldn't reread the books," she says. "So I now employ a complex system of page foldings and ghostly fingernail indentations. I indicate words whose meanings I'm not sure of and words I want to remember and use myself. I'm often left to wonder what led me to note a passage, and I find that more intriguing than some pen slash with a silly scrawl beside it."

Meanwhile, the novelist Eric McGraw, who is married to the poet Hudgins, defaces books with gusto. "I not only underline, in ink; I keep a list on the flyleaf of pages with especially good underlinings," she says. "This is one reason my husband only grudgingly lets me read his books--and keeps an eye on me while I do. He says I mangle books. He's right. I crack spines. I dog-ear pages. After I've read a book, it looks conquered. I like that."

Don't tell McGraw, but Hudgins has found an even stranger kick: "I do get a weird thrill when I'm writing about a book--I buy an extra copy just so I can tear out pages I want to quote. That's kind of kinky fun."

~O, The Oprah Magazine - July 2006 issue - Vol. 7, Num. 7 - Pgs. 104, 106

:) At the bottom of the article, there is also a list of organizations that you can happily send your old (but still loved!) titles to.

Books for Soldiers - Members of the Armed Forces make requests online, and you send the literary goodness directly to them.

Write a Prisoner - This site regularly posts requests from prison libraries. Please consult individual listings for specific needs.

International Book Project - This 40-year young non-profit humanitarian organization sends books to schools, churches, and orphanages throughout the world.

So, what about YOU? Are you a Hudgins or a McGraw? :) Personally, I don't even OWN a bookshelf (I KNOW, I KNOW!). I'm still a youngin', though. It is definitely the top item on my "Things to Buy" list for when I'm able to be a grown-up and buy the home furnishings I want (i.e. whenever my house is clean enough on a consistent basis to be able to put something as nice as a bookshelf up). And I definitely dog-ear pages. And I've taken to writing in all of my magazines, ripping out articles of interest that remind me of friends (which, inevitably, never end up getting into the mail).

Books are near and dear to my heart; they are things which I cherish as I'm reading them, but seemingly never pick up again after the last word of the last page. I have a habit of removing the dust jackets and sitting them aside until I'm done reading the book, and then I put them back on. As much as I love them, I haven't read many books, but I have a lot on my to-read list. My favorite book (favorite, as in, I've read it 3 or 4 times, which, knowing how I am, totally says a lot) is Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood, by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey. The longest book I've ever read was East of Eden, of course by Steinbeck.

What are YOUR reading habits like? What are you reading RIGHT NOW? What's the last page YOU dog-eared? :)