Books in the Time of Corona: what’s on my shelves and what’s not, and the story it tells

First, an apology for the title slug. I know you’re all sick and tired of plays on A Love in the Time of Cholera. Still. There’s a reason we’re doing it.

Second… but really first:

i. A catalogue

I recently moved, and as part of the uprooting, I culled my physical books to the essentials. (Ok, I moved like 500 metres away, but hey, packing and thus purging was definitely involved.) Stress on the physical: thank gods for my e-readers, a library of thousands always in my pocket.

Still. I was pretty ruthless. Totally ruthless, actually. Goodbye, university textbooks. Goodbye, books from the “I was a teenage Wiccan” phase. Goodbye, big thick books that look good on my shelf and make me feel smart because I own them—but let’s be honest, I’m never going to read Infinite Jest. I tried. It’s unreadable. I read Gravity’s Rainbow—goodbye—and, frankly, wish I hadn’t, don’t remember what it’s about, and I’ll never get that time back.

Goodbye, all of Jeanette Winterson’s not Sexing the Cherry books. Goodbye, gifted books that missed the mark—goodbye, self-bought books that I read, don’t remember, will never read again. Goodbye, books I once loved but don’t anymore—that cull was the hardest.

What’s left was still heavy to move and comprises about ten shelf equivalents. But each of these books is loved. Important.

Like The Letters of Sylvia Plath and this little known book of the poet’s drawings:

I don’t actually own Plath’s The Bell Jar or Ariel. How is this possible? Note to self: must buy. Response to self: this is how it beings, hoarding, pack-ratting expansion. Don’t do it. Response to response to self: Shut up. I want my Sylvia.

All of my Polish books:

Some of these have travelled the world with my parents and me for almost forty years. The Polish translation of A.S. Lindgren’s Children from Bullerbyn (which used to belong to my dad’s sister, actually—she got it and read it the year I was born) and of Winnie The Pooh—the first “chapter” books I ever read. And, of course, Sienkiewicz, Mickiewicz, Orzeszkowa, Rodziewiczówna. Kapuścinski. The more modern poets: Zagajewski, Anna Świrszczyńska and Wisława Szymborska, not in translation.

This cultural heritage of mine, I have a very… fraught, complex relationship with. So much beauty, so much passion, so much suffering—so much stupidity, so much pain.

Governments do not define a national, a culture, or a people, I suppose. But in a democracy, they reflect the will and the hearts of the majority of the people, and, if the current government of Poland reflects the majority of the will and the hearts of the (voting) Polish people, they are repugnant to me and I want nothing to do with them. I am ashamed of them, of where I come from.

But I do come of them, from there, do I not?

Still. I keep the books. Including the one celebrating our first modern proto-fascist, Józef Piłsudski. History is complicated; ancestry not chosen.

Next, a shelf of all of my favourites.

All of Jane Austen, of course. Most of Nabokov. Virginia Woolf, because, well, it’s complicated. Susan Sontag’s On The Suffering of Others, and E.M. Forester’s Maurice—I gave up Room With a View and the others. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, not so much because I’ll ever read it again but because it was so important back then. Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, because nothing like it has been written before or since. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—I mean. I had to keep it, hero of my misspent university youth. I put him right next to Charles Bukowski’s Women, which isn’t great, but which… well. It taught me a lot about writing. Then, Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings, which always makes me cry because a) it exists and b) I will never write that well.

Edward Said’s Orientalism, the only book to survive my “why the fuck did I keep all of these outdated anthropology and sociology and history textbooks for 25 years” purge. Margaret Mead’s New Lives for Old, which wasn’t one of them, but a later acquisition, kept in honour of the woman who dared live her life, do her thing. She wasn’t the smartest, the brightest, the most original—but fuck, she dared. Fraser’s The Golden Bough and Lilian Faderman’s Chloe Plus Olivia, both acquired in my teens—the first gave me religion for a while, while I freed myself of the Polish Catholicism in which I grew up (“freed” is an aspirational word; I suspect the religions we are indoctrinated into in childhood stay in our bones forever—the best that we can do is be aware when that early programming tries to sabotage our critical thinking and emotional well-being), and the second showed me I wasn’t a freak, an aberration, alone.

Next, The First Ms. Reader and the Sisterhood is Powerful anthology—original 1970s paperbacks bought in a used bookstore in the 1990s when I was discovering feminism. Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor’s The Great Cosmic Mother—I suppose another Wicca-feminism vestige. I will never read it again, but way back when, that book changed my life, so. Here it is, with me, still.

And now, back to fiction: The Doorbell Rang, my only Rex Stout hardcover, although without the dust jacket, and a hardcover, old, maybe even worth something, with protected dust jacket intact, of P.G. Wodehouse’s Psmith, Journalist. Next to them, The Adventures of Romney Pringle and The Further Adventures by Romney Pringle, the single collaboration between R. Austin Freeman and John J. Pitcairn under the pseudonym of Clifford Ashdown. Written in 1902 or so, both volumes are the first American edition. In mint condition. Like the P.G. Wodehouse—and The Letters of Sylvia Plath, and the unique, autographed, bound in leather made from the butts of sacrificed small children or something, Orson Scott Card Maps in the Mirror short story collection, which is next-but-one to them on the bookshelf—they were a gift from Sean.

A lot of the books on my shelves, here with me now, are a gift from Sean.

Between them, a hard cover Georges Simeon found at a garage sale, and then G.K. Chesterton—Lepanto, the poem about the 1571 naval battle between Ottoman forces and the Holy (that’s what they called themselves) League of Catholic Europe, which I will never read again, but which is associated with a specific time and event in my personal history, so I keep it. Next to it, The Collected Stories of Father Brown, in battered hardcover, which I re-read intermittently, and which are—well. Perfect, really. Then, all of Dashiell Hammett in one volume. Then, almost all the best Agatha Christie’s in four “five complete novels” hardcover collections, topped with two multi-author murder mystery medleys from the 1950s.

Looking at this shelf makes me very, very happy.

Next, the one fully preserved collection. Before the move, these books lived on a bookshelf perched on top of my desk. Now, they are here, their “natural” order slightly altered because of the uneven height of this case’ shelves. The top shelf is, I suppose, mostly reference and writing books:

The Paris Review Interviews, Anne Lammott’s Bird by Bird, Neil Gaiman’s Make Good Art, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and their ilk. At the end, a couple of publications in which I have a byline.

The next shelf, the smallest on the case, is a bit of a smorgasboard, but is very precious to me:

Do you see Frida and my Tarot cards? Also an Ariana Reines book that I really should give back to its owner…

Next, my perhaps most precious books.

Philip Larkin’s Letters to Monica and Nabokov’s Letters to Vera. Anne Carson’s If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Four Letter Word, a collection of “original love letters” (short stories, they mean, pretentious fucks) from an assortment of mega-stars, including Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. LeGuin… a strange assortment, really. But some lovely pieces in there. Some lame ones too—and I like that too. Even superstars misfire, every one in a while.

Then, Leonard Cohen, Pablo Neruda, Walt Whitman, Jack Gilbert, Vera Pavlova. Finally, Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus and Little Birds, and a bunch of battered Colettes. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer right next to Colette, of course. Then, my Frida books.

The next shelf is full of aspirational delusions.

Farsi textbooks next to Hafez, Rumi and Forough Farrokzad translations. I will never be able to read Hafez in the original Persian. But maybe? Life is long. Maybe, one day, I will have time. Then, Jung’s Red Book, Parker J. Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness, Rod Stryker’s The Four Desires, Stephen Cope’s The Great Work of Your Life, Thich Nhat Hahn’s The Art of Communicating (I failed), The Bhagavad Gita (still trying).

As I said, the shelf of delusions.

The bottom shelf is aspirational/inspirational, and also, very tall.

And so, that’s why my Georgia O’Keefe books are there, as well as The Purple Book, and Obrist’s do it manifesto. Perhaps there is room there for my leather-bound Master’s thesis, currently tucked away in the closet, right there, next to a course binder from SAIT? Then, all of my Spanish books, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s El Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera… which, also, one day, I will read in Spanish and actually understand. Life is long, right?

Next, not really a book shelf as such, but the top shelf of my secretary desk, where the reference and project books of the moment live.

The Canadian Press Stylebook has a permanent home here, of course. And I’ve got two copies of Canadian Copyright: A Citizen’s Guide there, one for me (unread, but I’ll get to it, I promise myself, again), one for a colleague. Both snagged from a Little Free Library, by the way.

Almost done.

In the bedroom, the books of vice.

A shelf of battered Ngaio March paperbacks, tucked beside them some meditation and Kundalini yoga books that I’m not using right now, but, maybe, one day, I am not ready to give up on this part of myself yet.  Below, a shelf of even more battered Rex Stout paperbacks.

I read and re-read these books—as did their original owners—until they fall to pieces. They are my crack, my vice—also, my methadone, my soother.

Below them, space for library books, mine and Ender’s:

I am finding Anna Mehler Paperny’s Hello I want to Die Please Fix Me unreadable, by the way. I pick it up, put it away. Repeat.

Will likely return it to the library unread.

Currently not on display: books by friends. Some here with me, some on the shelves in the Co-op house. There are a lot of those. Can one be ruthless… with friends?

ii. A reflection

Books, for readers and writers, are the artifacts that define us. When I enter a reader’s home, I immediately gravitate to their bookshelves. What’s on them?

What’s not on them?

What I’ve chosen to let go of, to not bring with me here tells me… a lot.

What am I going to do with this information?

xoxo

“Jane”