I like to read books about books, people who write books, bookstores, and libraries. Last Saturday I went to a yard sale and came home with The Professor and the Madman, A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary and Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama and Other Page-Turning Adventures from a Year in a Bookstore. I read Shelf Life during a heatwave while my 16-year-old got ready for camp – she doesn’t want my help anymore so I stretched out to read and spent a lot of time yelling “Don’t get Sharpie on my nice rug!” and “Can you turn the music down?”
In Shelf Life novelist Suzanne Strempek Shea accepts a job in a friend’s bookstore while recovering from cancer treatment and her book lovingly describes the goings-on and cast of characters in Edwards Books in Springfield, Massachusetts where she waited on bibliophiles like me.
My copy of Shelf Life is well-worn and the last pages look like they got soaked in a flooded basement or someone was having a good read and bam, a glass of sweet tea fell over. No matter. Most of my favorite used books show signs of wear and tear and a beat up book is a much read book and therefore must be worth one’s while.
When I glance over my rather large library, having collected books since I was 24-years-old and now married to another collector (Edward Rice Burroughs Tarzan and Mars series plus pulp fiction, but won’t buy on Ebay; prefers the hunt, preferably after a good lunch), I appreciate how many books I have about books and authors. There are fat biographies on Colette, Edith Wharton, Truman Capote, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Eudora Welty, Genet, Oscar Wilde, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Granted, I have enjoyed all these though I now feel one day, in my wise old end-of-the-line years, I will shred all my papers and diaries because I won’t be here to defend the 14-year-old or 30-year-old Tyler. And she would need someone to stick up for her.
If I keep poking around in my library, I find Jonathan Yardley’s Second Reading and Books in My Baggage, More Delightful Essays on Books, Collecting, Authors, and the Joys of Reading by Prof. Lawrence Powell, circa 1960. I also have a little paperback called Sixpence House, Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins, a hand-me-down from my mother-in-law. I’ve only read the Yardley book so next time I choose something from my library these two treats are awaiting a rainy day, cup of tea, and cat on my lap.
I know there are other books about books stashed around the house, some probably hidden by my daughter’s artwork, swimming trophies (not mine), and baby pictures.
These books I have about books and authors tend to be a little dull and slow moving, but curiously, I don’t mind. There are neither aliens nor passionate break-ups, neither s-e-x nor earthquakes: just quiet moments in unheard of places with shelves of books and eccentrics wandering around. I certainly would never cut this sort of slack to any of my other books. I am as strict about what goes on my nightstand as what I plant in my yard. Grand performance or you are out.
It should come as no surprise that I am like this. As a young writer, when I lived in Washington, D.C., if I didn’t have a great plans, i.e. a date on Friday night, I often stayed home and read the dictionary. I did not think this was odd; after all, words were my business.
This week’s New Yorker arrived, the one with the Booth cartoon of a dog in a tree on the front. One of the articles is “The Book Refuge” by Janet Malcolm about a family-run bookstore in New York City. I’ve already folded over the magazine and left it on my bedside table, covering up Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a theater brochure and the directions for my new bird watching binoculars. Later tonight, with weary eyes and a beating heart, I will read this just before I click off the light.