by Juhi Singhal Karan and Rachel Leal
We love books, and getting a glimpse at a writer’s bookshelf is a delight—whether they’re well curated shelves of “rhyme and reason” or “disorderly assemblages.” From family heirlooms to gun cabinets to chairs and even floors, a bookshelf isn’t just a container for pulp and ink, it holds a map of a reader’s journey. Here are the “Shelfies” of six of our staff writers, in their own words and photos.
The first writer whose complete works I wanted to own was Denise Levertov. The old faded Whitman (next to less faded Berryman) is probably the book I pull off the shelf most often to re-read, at least in part. My bookshelves are disorderly assemblages of things I’ve read and taught. I share them with the people I share my life with; many of whom live on the shelf, too, along with little doodads they’ve given me. The picture of me (upper shelf, next to The Golden Notebook) was taken this past summer at Ghost Ranch in Abiqui, New Mexico, where I offered a workshop on voice and celebrated life and writing with the women of AROHO (A Room of One’s Own Foundation).
My small library (six massive bookcases filled to the brim) just got a little more stuffed. I stopped at a book sale—Joan Didion, John Scalzi, and a few others came home with me. Despite just reorganizing my books about a month ago, things are already mish-mashed up. Behind me you can see some feminist nonfiction and Ralph Young‘s Dissent in America smashed into my adult fiction section. Looks like I’ll be re-reorganizing soon!
This is me with my Southern literature collection (on the left), topped by a basket and bread bowl that came out of two different nineteenth-century houses in Russell County, Alabama, where I grew up. On the right is a glass-doored cedar gun cabinet, handmade by a family friend, that was retrofitted to hold first editions, friends’ signed books, and other treasures—my favorite way of turning swords into ploughshares. (And that’s my Christmas tree on the left, Meyer Lemon tree that’s moved indoors for an Iowa winter on the right. Authors represented in the gun cabinet include Doris Betts, Allan Gurganus, Richard Wright, my old teacher Barry Hannah, and my admired friend Elizabeth Spencer.)
My shelves are usually organized by whim, but this one shelf in my office has more rhyme and reason to it. It’s a happy assortment of books I’ve taught with, resources I use or have used once upon a time to edit and (much of the top shelf) books I’ve edited or contain pieces I’ve edited. Some of the last group are even autographed!
Joseph M. Schuster
My bookcases in my study are, for the most part, disorganized—books stacked too deep and piled on shelves, on my desk, on the floor beside my desk. Years ago, I tried shelving my books in some sort of order—in categories and then alphabetically—but I find that I prefer the randomness. I can go looking for something, or just browse, and come across books I haven’t thought of in a while or that I bought and put on a shelf unread, and be surprised in my own house. The two cases in this photo are impractical, given how many books I own (there are bookcases and piles of books elsewhere in the house), but my aunt, who has since passed away, called me one day some years ago and said, “Remember those bookcases in my apartment you said you liked? I’m sending them to you. The movers just left with them.” I didn’t remember that I’d said any such thing, but the bookcases were important to her, and it was important to her that I have them. Some years ago when I was selling my house, on the advice of my real estate agent, I moved nearly all of my books to a storage locker, but from time to time, until I sold that house and moved into the one where I live now, I visited the storage locker and went through the boxes of books, to visit them, because I missed having them around.
This is one bookshelf of many in my house. I have no particular arrangement, which would drive anyone else crazy—my nod to logic is that literary journals are on one set of shelves, New York Review of Books books (and in a nod to provenance, older books that were later reissued as NYRBs) on another. Art books have their own bookcase, to your right; New York histories and novels have spilled over into a couple of shelves and show no signs of stopping. Other than that, it’s relatively random. I know where everything is, though, mainly because of each book’s story: gifts, publisher’s review copies, secondhand books bought in a dark bookstore or on the street. I know each one’s origin, just as I can remember how I met every one of my friends, even though there are so many of them (books, that is—I have plenty of friends, but definitely not numbering in the thousands). The sock monkey knows the location of every book in the house, but he may or may not be telling.
Homepage image courtesy Bookshelf Porn