Bookshelf Triage Time: The Joys of Getting Control of my Personal Library

By K.K. Beck

The books on the bookshelves in my house have long been a source of frustration to me. They are not in the right order. There are too many of them. Some of them are missing. Some of them are ratty looking paperbacks that are falling apart. A lot of them have tears where little hands of my now grown children pulled them off shelves by their dust jackets over the decades.

It all came to a head recently when I inherited my mother’s vast library. This added a whole new dimension. How to incorporate beloved volumes I remember from my childhood? Not to mention weird historical anomalies like the incomprehensible books my astrologer, alchemist and general New Age wacko great-grandfather C. Tousey Taylor self-published during his lifetime. (He repackaged one turgid tome titled Which, Instinct, Impulse or Intuition? from the 1930s with a new cover proclaiming You are an Atomic Bomb! in the 1950s.)

I am trying to get control. I first got myself a bunch of book boxes from U-Haul. (These book boxes are wonderful because they are small enough so that you can fill them with books to take to donate to the Friends of the Library or a used bookseller and still actually lift them.)

Then, I asked myself if each book I had was commercially available and easily replaceable. So do I need a paperback copy of novels by Henry James or Anthony Trollope or Vladimir Nabokov? No. I can find them if I want to reread them – or in the case of some of them – actually if I get around to reading them in the first place. That cleared up a lot of space, but it was tough and I caved on a certain number of them.

I also weeded out duplicates – I didn’t really need two copies of one of my favorite books – Isadora Duncan’s occasionally inadvertently hilarious biography My Life, beginning with herself in utero while her mother in San Francisco lived mostly on oysters and champagne.

Then, I visited my favorite online used bookseller, ABE Books, and replaced some of the rattier paperbacks of books I truly loved with decent hardbacks, preferably with original dust covers. (I don’t care about first editions – but I like books to look like they did when they first appeared – adding period charm.) Now my copy of Imaginary Friends by Alison Lurie (wonderful because it’s funny and about a cult – two of my favorite things,) has a picture of the author as she looked when it came out.

I was also thrilled to get a nice Book Club edition of Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower to replace the paperback with all the photographs falling out. I love this book about the fascinating years leading up to World War One because it’s full of goofy anecdotes about famous oddballs like Prince Kropotkin, Kaiser Wilhelm and my favorite, Richard Strauss’ crazy wife Pauline who shrieked at him in public all the time, made him wipe his feet on three separate door mats before entering the house and once insisted that Strauss, a human doormat himself where she was concerned, walk ten paces behind her.

While I was at it, I went on ABE to buy some books I loved but which had vanished over the years. I learned that how I got a book was a big part of my attachment to certain titles. When I was nineteen I went to Ankara with a friend whose sister was living there. A high point of the trip was meeting an English archeologist who had known Agatha Christie and her archeologist husband. (My informant said she complained that her feet hurt a lot.) He also recommended a book he knew I would like, The Wilder Shores of Love from the 1950s by Lesley Blanch, an amazing book about four European women who ended up in the exotic Middle East over the centuries, including a cousin of Napoleon’s wife Josephine who was abducted into a harem and went on to become the mother of the next Sultan who subsequently surprised the world by writing a letter in French to the government of France suggesting they be friends. I’ve just replaced this book and it‘s wonderful to be reunited with this old pal.

I also broke down and went on line to order a bunch of those plastic wrappers that you fold over dust jackets. I’d put this off for about thirty years, because they looked hard to put on.

All this activity is enormously satisfying. I’m also getting my priorities straight. I know what’s really important to me. Books about frauds and cults and their misguided adherents have a high priority. And true crime. What I really loved from my mother’s collection was her series of notable British trials. Lots of great poisoning cases there. And the hardback copies of golden age detective stories I started collecting in high school at the Seattle Goodwill back in the 1960s for 29 cents apiece. Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Anthony Berkeley. I’m not sure when I will reread them, but they are a comfort to have on the shelves. I even find myself smiling at them.

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2 Responses

  1. Makes me think of some of my tattered paperbacks that I’ve kept for years. One of them has pages falling out, but I’ve never been able to find a hardback. I think it was a paperback original all those years ago.

    • Hi Janet, My advice is to hang on to it and put a rubber band around it! Or fold it up in one of those plastic dust jacket holder things so it doesn’t fall apart on the shelf. I did that with a transgressive kid’s etiquette book called ‘More Goops and How Not to Be Them’ [can’t find out how to italicize this title] by Gelett Burgess, written in 1903 and reprinted in 1931. It had the spine thing falling off but the plastic thing holds it all together so it doesn’t crumble onto the floor in front of the bookcase! Gelett Burgess was a Berkeley prof who was fired for getting drunk and defacing the statue of a temperance advocate. He also wrote that think about a Purple Cow.

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