My So-Shelf Life

What do your books, and how you toss them about, say about you?

I love a challenge and Lyra threw this one down: take a picture of your shelves and think about what they might say about you, the genesis for which came from The Paris Review‘s “Shelf-Conscious” article.  I picked our living room shelf because it’s most visible to passers-by.  I took the above photo at eye level.

The first thing that comes to mind:  Neat.  Freak.  *sigh*  When my daughter was in high school, her boyfriend said he couldn’t get off the couch without me fluffing his pillow.  He had (has?) a point.  I blame it on the dogs —- maybe if our bookshelves are tidy and the pillows fluffed no one will notice the floating tumbleweeds of dog hair?

We sort by genre:  Fiction, General Nonfiction, Politics, Memoir, Biography, French, The Classics, The Holocaust, WWII, The Civil War, Funk & Wagnalls, First Editions, Sports, Poetry, Writing, Short Stories, Mysteries/Thrillers, New-and-Waiting-To-Be-Read.

We are our own used book store.

When our kids still lived at home, they’d head out on a Friday night and there we’d be, their parents, lamps on, a glass of wine on the end table, noses in our books.  “You guys are so exciting!” they’d laugh.  Now they’re all grown up.  And when they come to visit, guess who’s nose is in a book while dad manages the dogs and mom keeps them fed.

We are a family of book nuts nerds wackos lovers.

Bookshelves flank all 4 walls of our dining room.  It’s colorful.  It’s noise-absorbing.  And anytime somebody comes for supper there’s stuff all around us to talk about.  People often leave this house with a borrowed book.

Looking at the 2 shelves in this photo, I see all of the books I haven’t read.  Somebody should shut down my account until I read these books.  I mean, come on.  I bought THE MARCH and RAGTIME right after I saw E.L. Doctorow — last year.  And why aren’t they shelved next to each other?  Maybe I’m not as organized as I think I am????

Hahahaha! says my daughter’s old boyfriend from afar.  Fluff that pillow.

What do you see?


28 thoughts on “My So-Shelf Life

  1. lisahgolden

    I see the Junot Diaz and Rebecca on the same shelf. I have those same editions? versions? and they’re on the same shelf. And oh! The Blind Assassin. That’s moving slowly up the To Read stack. And there’s a book written by a friend! And lots of books I’d like to read.

    And do I see two copies of Invisible Man?

    From one neat freak to another, carry on. Fluff away.

  2. Sarah W

    I’ll take one of those copies, Lisa! Mine wandered away . . .

    I’m in awe of your shelves, Teri! One of these days, I’ll organize our books . . . but they won’t stay that way. It’s the tidal currents, you see — or do I mean migratory patterns?

    1. Teri

      How can I organize and reorganize my books? Every time we relocate to a new town, new house, I get to figure it out all over again. I hope I’m done.

  3. Erika Marks

    I see a gorgeous sea of books just waiting to be taken out, flipped through and smelled deeply.

    I also see my book tucked in so close to one of my very favorite books of all times, THE SHIPPING NEWS. I might as well have just been asked out by the hottest boy for prom. You’ve made my night, Teri.

      1. jess

        …and I just uploaded Little Gale Gumbo to my Kindle…refuge from the storm of funeral stuff. Will, of course, review on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. etc. etc…

  4. amyg

    oh my god. between the neatness of your and lyra’s shelves, i’m starting to get anxiety about simply entering my office. i’m going to have to do a before and after picture. tomorrow. i will organized my books. my magazines. get rid of the piles. add order to the shelves. determine what books must go to make space for the books that stay stacked either on the shelf in front of the shelved books or on the floor. i’m not quite hoarders variety, but i’m not winning any Real Simple organizing awards either.

    (i see kingsolver. bastard out of carolina. richard russo (such a great writerly last name), and little children. dead center. as it should be!)

    1. Teri

      I had no idea so many of my favorite books and writers would be crowded into these 2 little shelves —- it’s funny, I see this completely differently in a the photo vs. reality. Is that called Book Dysmorphia?

      Don’t you dare start organizing on my account. I will take no credit for anyone’s anxiety but my own!

  5. macdougalstreetbaby

    I see pure gorgeousness. And I love that you loan out your books. A very good friend has shelves likes these but he’d never, in a million years, part with his treasures. One time I suggested he donate some of his books, whereby he ran to his bookcase and started hugging it uncontrollably, screaming, “Never! Never!”

    1. Teri

      Okay, I admit I’m choosy about the loaning out. I once loaned out SOPHIE’S CHOICE and it didn’t come back for almost a year. And a friend once borrowed a whole chunk of Rex’s favorite books for her dad to read, and then the dad died and we never got those back. What do you say?? “I’m so sorry, now about those books ….” Um, no.

  6. CJ

    McGuane and Atwood and Morrison and Harrison and so many other books also on my shelves, though mine are not so orderly as yours. I’m a stacker.

    1. Teri

      I used to be much more of a stacker, but then the stacks would get too tall and topple. It is easier to read the spines in a stack.

  7. Averil Dean

    I see a brainy chick, a brainy family. All those black and white spines, tidy as piano keys. The colors are a dead giveaway.

    (I also see Little Gale Gumbo! That makes me so happy. And Lolita! Which makes me want to get out my copy and read it again.)

  8. Downith

    I see some old friends – Poisonwood Bible, The Shipping News, Rebecca and some new ones -Little Gale Gumbo, Revolutionary Road. It really makes me want to get some book shelves in this damn house and unpack my books.

    Of course I also spotted a Joan Didion.

    Now, speaking of dog fluff…. time to hoover (again!)

    1. Teri

      There might be a Joan Didion on every shelf I could photograph.

      Have I told y’all that Lizi mailed me her Joan Didion edition of Poets & Writers —- how thrilled I was to get it. Thank you Lizi !!

  9. jess

    I see memories and a to-do list.

    The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: my student Danielle gave me a copy of this in 1999 and it’s still a treasured item on my bookshelf. I now have my students read it and they love it. Note to self: send a note to Danielle to thank her again.

    Pete Dexter: I really loved the story about some large bird in his garage from Paper Trail, but got disappointed by the rest. Note to self: go back and try again, he might be worth it.

    Beloved: I miss teaching high school sometimes.

    A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: I recently lent this book out to a girl who is really hurting in her heart, suffering post-traumatic stress, and she refuses to give the book back. Note to self: Let her have this one thing, she needs it. Buy new copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

    There’s lots more – so, so many – but I have a pre-funeral brunch thing to get ready for, plus suit pants to hem for the boys. Thanks for this, Teri, I really needed to get lost in your shelves this morning. I may just have to go home and post a similar photo and see what you guys see in mine.

  10. Sherry Stanfa-Stanley

    I’ve decided that, other than a couple close friends I know are responsible, I am done loaning out books. I have at least a dozen that were never returned, and unfortunately I didn’t keep a list of borrowers…

    But the unread ones I own are almost as frustrating. At last count, I had nearly 50. And still, I keep on buying… Is there a group for Bookaholics?

  11. Lyra

    I remember when you posted the picture of when you hosted the book group, and I was in awe of a dining room surrounded by books. But now seeing it up close, I can tell you when I make it to California one of these days I’m just going to stand there looking at all the books that I still need to read. I’ve only read a handful (a handful!) of books on those two shelves.
    Now, how exactly do you manage to have all of your books the same size?? Do you shave off the tops? And the spines! You weren’t joking about the spines. They are a feat of my imagination.
    Beautiful shelves. Sigh. Beautiful.

    1. Teri

      See, the books are even kind-of the same height. Pillow fluffier extraordinaire might freak out if the tall books cozy up to the short books. Might.

  12. LauraMaylene

    Hey, don’t be ashamed of your neatness (or your pillow fluffing). Slobs like me are totally envious of you. I think it’s because I truly believe, on this inside, that I am a neat person like this, and that I would have carefully organized and maintained bookshelves. But in reality, everything is a total disaster. I’m almost (ALMOST) too embarrassed to show a photo of my messy bookshelves. But since we have already established I have no shame, it will happen.

    1. Teri

      Yeah, there’s pretty much no shame left in this group. Share away.

      I recall the Mary Karr line, advice given her from Tobias Wolff: “Take no care for your dignity.”

  13. Angela LaForest

    This crazy Missouri girl suffers from OCD. I love your bookshelves! lol We are in the process of building more shelves for my out of control collection.

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