If you want to understand who a person is, look at their book shelves. It was no surprise when I recently found rows of mystery paperbacks on a friend’s shelves as I helped clear out her stash, but it was a surprise to find the complete set of Elena Ferrante from My Brilliant Friend to The Story of the Lost Child. It was no surprise to find Vogue fashion but the complete set of Playbills took me back. Not so much what we read, but what we save after we read often tell stories about what we value and perhaps what we dream about.
Realizing this, I wondered if I should reconfigure my own shelves. I wouldn’t want to be misunderstood by the books I left behind. Maybe it was time to ditch Margaret Dods’ The Housewife’s Manual or my mother’s 1933 copy of The Modern Handbook for Girls. Harris’ Twenty Minute Retreats could stay as well as The Thurber Carnival. But maybe the complete set of Harry Potter could make room for other books. The Shaker Handbook, a gift to thank me for making a speech years ago and the Annapolitan Quality of Life, with an article on my younger days, remind me of when I was more productive, so they will stay – along with all the cookbooks and treasured children’s books. I still smile when I look at the cover of the old Free To Be You And Me; it seems more anachronistic in its advice than The Modern Handbook for Girls.
Once upon a time I had a wall of books, dating from childhood, through college and graduate school, with whispers of career days, and on to the luxury of reading whatever I wanted to read. Sadly, the wall is gone, replaced by only a few shelves. One shelf has the current reads, rotating with library books and those books I could not get out of a bookstore without buying – all regularly replaced. But the other shelves have those old friends I cannot part with – telling the story of who I am.
But not everyone will understand. Someday, someone will clean out my shelves and wonder why I saved W.B. Yeats: Romantic Visionary. They will think I loved the poetry, but, alas, the book was only a reminder of a Dublin adventure.
Gabriells Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry vicariously fulfills the dream of many readers to own a bookstore in a small town, where being able to read all day and talk about books, trumps profits. With clever references to familiar books and pithy quotes from favorite authors, Zevin offers a handy resource of good reads along with a quirky love story that will charm you as she follows a recognizable formula for second chances.
Both A.J. and his wife, Nic, are literary beings who have forsaken the grueling years they could have dedicated to writing their dissertations to open a bookstore in a small town off the coast of Massachusetts, accessible only by ferry. After Nic dies in a car accident, A. J.’s life follows the usual pattern of despair – until two seemingly unrelated occurrences change his life forever: his valuable first edition of a rare Edgar Allan Poe book is stolen, and a toddler is abandoned in the stacks of the store’s children’s books. Zevin follows up with a slow-moving romance connecting A. J. to a publisher’s rep, a plot twist involving his dead wife’s sister, and humorous episodes as A.J. revels in his new role as father to the precocious young girl left in his store.
The story has the pace and flavor of a “Major Pettigrew” or Beginner’s Greek, with characters who don’t fit the mold and a story line that easily moves from slight mystery to poignant moments and satisfying resolution, with lots of bumps along the way. The ending is contrived and not as happily-ever-after as you are led to expect, but I enjoyed this fast read about redemption through books – a good one for book lovers.
Although I can commiserate with Amy Wilentz’s dilemma of overcrowded bookshelves in her essay for the New York Times Book Review – ...One Book Out, her decision to discard Carlos Ruiz Zafron’s Shadow of the Wind, one of my favorite books -without reading it – had me reassessing my own indiscriminate culling of books for lack of space. If Wilentz had inadvertently thrown away a treasure like Shadow of the Wind (maybe she didn’t mean it), what chance did I have to thin my shelves; just think what I might be missing.
If you think a candy store is tempting, try getting out of a bookstore with me without buying at least two books. On my last trip to Los Angeles, I decided to forego flying back with my neatly packed carry-on to load up on books at my favorite bookstore in West Hollywood. Of course, the books were available – online, by mail, probably in my bookstore back home – but that didn’t matter. Had to have those books, which now sit in a pile with other impulse book purchases in a corner next to my bookshelf.
Like Amy Wilentz, I own books I have yet to read, taking up precious space. Every now and then, I too try to thin the stacks. I mail books to a friend who has just bought a new house (empty shelves – happy birthday!) This works if I can get the book in the mail soon after I’ve finished reading; once that book claims its niche on my shelf, it may never leave again.
How could any reader resist this book title – the idea of a 24 hour bookstore is better than eating at an all-night diner. With a mix of fantasy and today’s world of digital magic, Robin Sloan creates an adventure of rivals – electronic books vs bound pages – in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Out of work computer geek, Clay Jannon, finds a new job on the night shift of a strange indie bookstore in San Francisco. Few customers want the books on display by Haruki Murakami, Neal Stephenson, and Dashiell Hammet; the attraction for his night visitors is the collection high on the dusty shelves in the back. Curious to understand the lure of these old books, Jannon digitally scans the log book and cracks a code that uncovers a secret society of readers. With the help of a new girlfriend who works for Google, Jannon follows the book store manager, Ajax Penumbra, to the headquarters of the Unbroken Spine group on Fifth Avenue in New York City – and starts the adventurous quest for a secret 15th century message that may be the key to immortality.
Although the ingredients of long black robes, secret staircases behind a bookcase, coded messages hidden in books, have the flavor of a mysterious fantasy, Sloan cleverly inserts the modern adult world and ancient artefacts into the dilemma. Google plays a key role, along with experts in simulation, video technology and professional hacking. You will be googling “The Dragon-Song Chronicles” and Gerritszoon font to see if they are real. A suspenseful moment has all the modern technology available working together to crack the code. Google does not yet have the answer to eternal life, but Jannon finds the solution reveals itself unexpectedly…
“There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care.”
Depends on how you define immortality…Sloan’s solution happily creates a balance of the new and the old that will please readers who like the smell of new book pages as well as the convenience of the Kindle.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a fun light read – all those familiar landmarks in San Francisco and New York City could lead you to believe that the adventure is real (I plan to look for the building across from Central Park), and the search for the puzzle pieces will keep you reading.
Just like fashion that recycles back if given enough time – you didn’t throw away those bellbottoms, did you? – small bookstores are making a comeback. Author Ann Patchett suggests that bookstores may go in cycles – like the cicadas, that buggy scourge that returns very 13 or 17 years, with their shrill sound, falling out of trees onto unsuspecting children’s backpacks as they walk home – adding more shrill screaming. Patchett’s reassuring essay confirms that those small independent bookstores are still here – and maybe better for the departure of their larger competitors. In her essay for the New York Times, Of Bugs and Books, Patchett recalls her recent book tour for her new novel, The State of Wonder.
Patchett visited some familiar names: Powell’s in Portland and Prose and Politics in Washington, D.C., and more – all doing well. As a mark of her faith, she is opening her own bookstore – Parnasus Books – in her hometown of Nashville.
Maybe Patchett will ask her visitors to follow the habit of patrons at Frank Shay’s bookstore in Greenwich Village, open for business from 1920 – 1925, and have users sign her door. Shay’s bookstore door just resurfaced in an exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, displaying famous signatures on both sides of the door: Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, and Sherwood Anderson, among other authors who liked to browse there. Jennifer Schuessler’s essay for the New York Times Sunday Book Review noted that Christopher Morley wrote about the small bookstore’s closing…
“It was too personal, too enchanting… to survive indefinitely.”
But, maybe the time for small enchanting bookstores is back.
- Read my review of State of Wonder – here
- More information on the Greenwich Village Door – here
- Interact with the Greenwich Village Door Exhibit – here