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    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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It’s Only Castles Burning

I’m at my sister’s and I’m looking at her bookcase, which isn’t organized in any particular way. THough in her guest house, where I’m staying, the shelves are filled from her life as an MFA student in theater. So there’s lots of heady stuff along with the classics like Ibsen, Chekov, and Shakespeare. Upstairs, there’s everything from Roberto Bolano to Prep. The requisite Franzen. This guy Jonathan Tropper who she loves. Lots of contemporary fiction. The novel, at least around here, is not dead.. When I used to date (which is euephemism for two week stands), I’d always check out the guy’s bookcase. I’d flee if he had a tattered copy of The Fountainhead or On The Road, and stay if he had Fitzgerald or Lawrence or Hawthorne or Melville. And to this day, if there is a bookcase in a room, I will always gravitate toward it and construct an identity based on what I find there: a person’s tastes, moods, passions, perversions. I will fill in the blanks, pass judgement, and often rethink that person based on his shelves.  Not to mention the sheer beauty of book spines. It just can’t be the same  as scrolling through a KindleNookIpad.

How does a bookcase speak to you?

53 Responses

  1. I was just thinking today, of taking a photograph of a stack of horse books piled in the stable lounge (a cold, drafty messy shack that smelt of cat) where my daughter was doing a riding camp. I just thought they were pretty, lazily stacked on top of a shelf of tattered tack and grubby boots. The were well used, all different sizes and vintages and all books that I would probably never own, not being horsey myself. I was captivated by them.

    Bookshelves are a big part of my life and always have been. I don’t trust people without them and I always snoop them too. I love finding unexpected books, maybe Harry Potter on the shelf of an elderly mathematician or Godel Escher Bach on the shelf of a teenage girl.

    And I had some “deal breakers” too when I was dating. So many people I’ve spoken to, men and women, gay and straight, consider Ayn Rand a dealbreaker that it’s a wonder her readers ever get any sex at all.

    • Most of my childhood was spent in a tack room reading horse books. Sometimes I would even try to read horse books while riding a horse! It’s fine unless something unexpected comes along like a fly or a bird, and something always does…
      As far as I know Ayn Rand didn’t ride…

  2. They whisper, “Come and see.” And I do. I am always drawn to the bookshelves when I enter a room. Sometimes I feel like saying, “No, you go ahead with the dinner party, I’ll be fine in her looking at your books.”

    We moved just before Christmas and our books are still in boxes. I miss them.

    Those book spines in the photo are beautiful.

  3. I always do that too. Jonathan Tropper is on my shelf. Now about having a sister who has a guest house, tu as de la chance.

  4. I lasted six months with a guy who had a wall unit with ornaments and a huge screen. Don’t know how I lasted that long.

    And recently a guy told me to read On the Road and then Opus Pistorum by Henry Miller. My opinion of him completely changed after reading.

    It’s so crucial.

  5. A home with no books is sad, and I don’t linger. Much overtly political stuff, i move out smartly. Most anything else and I’m curious, at least for awhile. Sometimes the lower shelves hold surprises.

    • Bookshelves — the first stop in any house. If I see no shelves I slink around like a cat, sure I’ll find the books somewhere, and if I don’t, well, what the hell are we going to talk about.

      A friend of mine cleans houses. She always says I’d be shocked at how many people do not have a single book.

  6. Whenever I look at the rooms in shelter mags, I spend crazy amounts of time trying to identify the books on the shelves and tables.

    • Have you ever shopped at IKEA? Smart designers. They adorn their shelves with, what else, Swedish novels.

  7. When I see matched sets of books like the image above on the shelf of a stranger, I tend to assume, right or wrong, that the spines were the biggest attraction and no one has bothered to make sure the printer actually put words inside.

    Give me a shelf—or any flat surface—with a motley collection of individual books, well-loved and even tattered, that proves the owner actually read them and doesn’t care much what other people might think.

    That’s someone I know I can talk with, and even if the conversation ends up as an argument over Rand and Kerouac versus Runyon and Burroughs, I’ll have a good time.

    Then again, this attitude might be purely defensive . . .

    • I’m with you, Sarah. The older I get the more I prefer mismatched and torn. I’ll always aspire to a white built in bookcase with perfectly organized spines because that’s the society we live in but I’m perfectly aware that I’m genetically predisposed to a more chaotic system. After all, nobody puts baby in a corner.

      By the way, I damn well loved The Fountainhead but you’re right. If a guy had it on his shelf, jealousy would abound. Even after all these years, I still feel possessive over Mr. Howard Roark.

      • I figure without chaos there would be no order, and I’m always glad to do my bit for the cause (and in my house, nobody puts baby in the corner because there’s still a stack of unpacked boxes there from our move four years ago) .. .

        Literary crushes are so much fun! They rarely disappoint, especially if there aren’t any sequels . . .

  8. My bookcases (plural) cannot speak…they are muted by dust. The pile on the floor, different, current, referred to often, eclectic.

    Years ago the guys I dated didn’t have bookcases. Their reading matter was stacked in the reading-room, not a book among them; magazines, yea, those kinds, you know the ones with pictures.

    To the man I married books are sleep medication, yup, even the picture-mags. When he does read, he reads slowly, assimilates every word, forgets nothing. Now, if I could only get him to listen that way.

  9. I once dated a guy who had hung on to the most ghastly college textbooks. (He was a lot older than I.) It seems they were nearly the most recent books he had read. While we were dating he embarked upon Ulysses. Every few weeks he told me where he was in the book, not by what was happening in the plot but by what page number he had got to. I may not have gone to college or read Ulysses, but I know that’s no way to read a book.

  10. I always thought how empty someones life must be if they possess no books. But then I married a scientist, who doesn’t read for pleasure. When I first met him my doubts were raised as he had a six year old copy, half read, of Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Who, I thought, could half read Saturday? But then I don’t listen to music and he has amassed a large collection of jazz and plays saxophone and double bass beautifully. With age comes adjustment of opinions.

  11. My bookcase says to me, “My back is killing me.” Paperbacks spill out onto the floor and the mess creeps into the room, threatening to block the narrowing trail to my side of the bed. Most are from friends who, beside themselves with excitement, want to share their latest “fantastic” find. Somewhere are the few that I sometimes dig out on a Sunday afternoon for a repeat visit: Faulkner, Mark Childress, and a masterpiece “Goodbye to the Buttermilk Sky.”

  12. On the boat, there isn’t much space, and you’re pretty much stuck with the choices, though trades are often made at anchorages and bars. The length of the voyage influences how many to take, and for a week or so, one or two is fine. But I know a guy who lived aboard full time, and was cruising for 18-24 months; he was limited to three feet of books, and was choosing carefully.

  13. “Not to mention the sheer beauty of book spines.”

    Love.

  14. I check out not only the titles, but also look to see if the book has been read, if the spine is cracked and creased as a cowboy’s face or as straight as a decent 2 X 6. I also confess to glancing at the music collection. Too much Celine Dion molds my opinion in a whole different way than a mixed batch of Diana Krall, Bob Marley, Vivaldi, the Drive By Truckers, and Neil Young.

    • I used to live the Cracked Spine Theory, but no more. My books all look like they’ve been broken and dropped in the bathtub; my husband, however, rarely breaks a spine. How he reads on curved pages, I’ll never understand.

  15. Completely….

  16. Just back from a spring break trip to Idaho where we rented a condo for the week, and first thing I do when I enter a rental is inspect the bookshelves. Even the stingiest or most paranoid renter will leave books on the shelves. This condo had maybe four titles, one of which was a ghostwritten Bourne in hardback. Though there was a framed print announcing the publication of an essay collection.

    My daughter’s anthropology professor pulled her aside to tell her she has a real knack for the subject. He referred to it as “extreme people watching”. I think checking out a home bookshelf is an anthropological exercise. It reveals something about the inhabitants. The second place I look is the medicine cabinet.

  17. When my parents built their dream house, they had a study, lined with books. I thought my mother had changed. But when I spotted by 4th Form Geometry book at eye level, I knew she hadn’t.

    When the Beast blindfolds Belle and surprises her with his library — now that’s foreplay…

  18. Can anybody tell me about Cranford — the only one in the pic I don’t know (and love)…thanks!

    • It’s funny, Cranford is the only classic on my shelf with a fancy hardback cover like the pic above. Probably because it was borrowed from someone else, come to think of it…!

      It’s about a little Victorian English town where most of the households are female, and how they cope with the industrial age encroaching. Kind of. It’s slightly soapy and utterly heartrending on occasion – the BBC did a glorious adaptation a couple of years ago with an amazing cast (led by Judi Dench) and I lost count of the times it made me cry 🙂

  19. My husband was living on a boat when we met and would go to the local Barnes and Noble when it rained in LA, like today. Called me from a cozy chair there. First time he picked me up for a date his boatie boy truck volumes of paperback Patrick O’Brien on the floorboard I was enchanted.

  20. in an effort to streamline, i attempted to cull my bookshelves. the anxiety. i was unable to deal with it. just deconstructed the boxes and went out and bought another couple bookshelves. in this circumstance, my bookshelves were saying, “how could you? after everything i’ve done for you? the flights of fancy, the information, the wordplay?”

  21. In the playroom there are two, with Raggedy Anns I could read myself when I was four, and TinTins, and BoxCar Children, and Calvin and Hobbes, and encyclopediae, and lots of overflow. The hall has a beautiful Ethan Allen bookcase scratched to ruin and full of those shiny leather classics that I already checked have good resale on ebay. The living room has those big things about bicycles and Pearl Harbor and Lance Armstrong. The one in my room is a different green than the walls with Maeve Binchy and many King Arthurs and 1491 and a bunch I will get to. I found Anna Lee Waldo in there a while back. She sat there for years and I was transported. My husband has three cases in his room. Mostly nautical. I don’t want to look.

  22. “How does a bookcase speak to you?”

    It speaks volumes. My nephew Eric up in Chicago has the most wonderful bookcases, chock-full of good stuff on all three floors of his nice home. He has an English degree and an MBA and now he’s getting his MFA, so he’s a seriously booked-up lad.

    If you came to my house these days and saw my bookcases, you might whisper, “Whiskey tango foxtrot is going on here?” They are half-empty and the remaining books are in disarray, for my marriage is coming apart and the packing has already begun. It’s hard to live with a writer. Hard!

    • tetman. i’m concerned. is this unsalvageable?

      • I’ve tried like the dickens not to say anything about the situation. As you can imagine, it has weighed heavily on my mind these past couple of months. I won’t say much more about it, except to say that I believe in my marriage and I believe in couples weathering the storms that come in any relationship. I didn’t enter into this marriage to jump ship when the going got rough. My wife and I are moving in the summer. It is my hope that we will be moving together to the same place.

        I shouldn’t say anything more about it, except to say that whatever happens, I will be all write. As I ever am.

      • From the deepest holes sometimes comes the sweetest water…if you just give the silt time to settle.

        Whiskey, tango, foxtrot…excellent, love it, never heard it put that way; kind of sums up the stink pile too.

      • okay. try to remember that there’s great strength in vulnerability, tetman. and listening is important.

    • Whiskey tango foxtrot!!! I love it! My husband and I use the phrase charlie foxtrot all the time. No one knows what the hotel we’re talking about.

      (I’ve been a lurker here for about a month. Only one other post. Don’t really know what the best way is to “join the conversation”, so to speak. But I couldn’t resist commenting on the wtf. So hi, I’m Jen. I try to write, wish I were better and hope that practice and perseverance might make it so. I am addicted to reading and the library is my main drug source.)

      • Also..I didn’t finish reading the whole post (which I realize was only one sentence more, so shame on me) before I posted my excitement about whiskey tango foxtrot. I did not mean to seem callus to your situation, Tetman. “Whatever happens, I will be all write.” Amen to that.

    • Hey, buddy. I hope the storm isn’t too rough and just remember you’re not alone.

  23. My then-boyfriend insisted I read his Diane Arbus book, which made me realize how twisted he was. Next up: a geek who refuses to read anything unless it’s on a computer screen. As for me, every room in my house is lined with bookshelves. From glitzy design books, to dilapidated leather volumes inherited from my grandfather, it’s mix and match. I can grab a book off my shelf about sex, spirituality, or Spain, depending on my mood. And unlike men, books are always there for you.

    What amazes me is people who buy books by the yard from interior decorators. Ever glance at a shelf of gorgeous leather books in red, green, and brown, with embossed gilt letters and realize they’re minutes of town meeting from the 19th century?

  24. The quandary of a small New York apartment and lots of books. I love my books but more and more go to storage to make room for more books and stuff. Just 2 weeks ago, I added a few more to the outoing-to-storage pile. Even with wall-to-wall built-ins, I wouldn’t have enough space. I do admit thinking about my self-worth being assessed with each one going into a cardboard box for nobody to judge. What to do?

  25. I definitely do the same. My particular OCD point is there has to be at least two dictionaries. And no vampire books. You can own them, just don’t keep them on your bookshelf like a douche. The bookshelf is for the books that make you seem smart.

  26. I am planning to put my house on the market next year and have already begun the sad process of selling and giving away some of my library. I thought I was making real progress, too, until I remembered all the filled cartons in the basement…

  27. I live in the city and I love seeing books piled-up in windows, esp. if there’s a fire escape involved. My latest book “shelves” are those little painted chairs you see in thrift stores… the Scandanavian ones like Heidi must’ve had. I pile them high with my smaller books. Right now, my favorite chair is stacked with some of my Paris books. I also have an old dollhouse filled with tattered library copies of the Little House books, Peter Rabbit, Betsy Tacy books, All of a Kind Family, etc. etc. Old wooden wine boxes work well, and I’m also a sucker for etched glass on a bookcase. Ah, heaven…

  28. Bookshelves speak everything to me–they are a visceral need like food and shelter. They are one of the first things you see when you enter our house and having filled our bedroom and hallway, I’m in the process of filling a newly built room (no clunkers like The Day John Died or self help titles allowed). I love perusing any shelf–in the bookstore, library or friends’ houses but as far as judging dates, you might beware of rushing to… my husband owned about three books when we met. I’ve subsequently stocked him with Teddy Roosevelt bios, histories of the American West over the last 28 years and most recently Tibetan Buddhist titles so it’s not a deal killer….

  29. We are selling a valuable painting to raise cash and all I can think about is not the money we really need, but the wall space — we can put a bookshelf there!

  30. My office bookshelves reflect what I am working on or have worked on or have consulted when working. My home bookshelves are an odd mix of books people have given me, or that that I have bought myself, that I intend to read but mostly haven’t got around to yet. Most of the books that had the greatest effect on me aren’t on my shelves, because as soon as I finished them I gave them to someone else to read.

  31. I am the Bookcase Whisperer: expert in placement, arrangement, finish and size. With the careful arrangement of various height, freestanding bookcases, I created a “reading room” in a university’s library that pleased a certain millionaire so much, he not only underwrote the cost of the reading room, he announced he was leaving a sizable fortune to the university. To satisfy the whims of a couple building their dream home, I designed a wall of bookcases with one section that would swing out from the wall to reveal a secret passage way into an informal family room. Some dear friends called me into their home to settle a spat over bookcase placement. I ignored both their ideas and they agreed my recommendation made the most sense. In my own office, I re-purposed heavy duty freezer shelving (bought at auction) to serve as my bookcase. I’m quite pleased that the slotted shelves prevent dust from accumulating. The 5 foot wide shelves provide enough room to practically sort my books for me. And the way the shelves are attached to the support poles accommodates the less-than-level pitch of my floors.

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