A LONG time ago, before the boys came, when the world seemed to be full of possessions giving you lingering, sidelong glances, we bought two bookshelves.
In time, I lost one shelf to the boys, a noble but doomed experiment to get these creatures of the wild to be proprietary about space.
But to my sons a bookshelf is just a thicket of books. Just as trees grow at random, a book is found because a hand just happens to pull it out of the pile.
The gods of random might laugh behind my back but I am the crazy woman in the forest that tends her books, growing them by size and shape and genre.
Having only one shelf to hold all the books collected in a lifetime of reading is one reason for the annual rearrangement.
I prune regularly, giving away books to those I hope have more generous hearts and minds to house them.
Yet the boards of my bookshelf still sag lower each year.
One time, I tried piling nonfiction at the base as I figured the seriousness would be grave enough to support the second and third layers.
As it turned out, the upper layers holding works of imagination were anything but buoyant. One dawn, on my sleepy way to the bathroom, I pulled out a novel from somewhere in the middle of a pile and caused all three shelves to slide slowly towards me.
Whoever wrote that fiction is froth has never had masses of imagination dumped on his person.
In a fit of democratic alphabetization, I have also tried mixing genres and literary reputations. Cartland before Chekhov, Simenon preceding Steinbeck.
In real life, Eco might never circulate in the same cocktail party as Ellroy (who might consider such urbanities as filthier than swigging in the gutter) but my copy of Eco has less molds and fewer roach droppings simply because it is next to Ellroy’s crime noir, taken out whenever checking papers threatens the old lucidity (and I darn well mean “whenever”).
However, leavening literary differences turned out to be an underestimated struggle against snobbishness.
Truth to tell, I enjoyed more hanging out with Gaiman, Hemingway and Macdonald, but quickly stiffened in the petulant presence of the never-finished, never-penetrated Hesse, Ibsen and Melville.
Eventually, the bookshelf followed a new order, split between the Riotous, Irrelevant Contemporary, a section more populous and definitely untidy compared to the Dead Classics, impressive, dignified and undisturbed.
And then this year the screws gave way under the irretrievable shelves.
Realizing that many of my old friends are older than my 40 years (many of the titles were serendipitous finds in bargain bins), I thought for weeks how to reshelf them while minimizing harm.
Age is bad for book paper. It’s gentler though on people, the way our sandpapering at term’s end in grade school left textbooks with soft edges for the lower years to reuse.
I’ve long given up ordering the boys or setting a good example or rearranging my sons’ books on the shelf I lost to them. It’s enough for me now that the boys read, have a favorite title or two inserted in the interstices of their busy, full lives.
I’m even proud that they still consider me as the crazy woman who can find a title anywhere in their part of the thicket, as well as in mine.
For I no longer treat the bookshelf as if it were a European garden with rigid rules of formality to follow. These days, I just put in front what I want to read again.
Of course, being crazy all these years is hard to just undo. So the books are arranged according to the desire: titles-to-reread-now-that-I’m-older, titles-to-compare-with-their-movie-versions, what-on-earth-was-I-thinking-when-I-bought-this-title.
Like I say, raising books is never random.
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