3 posts

Don’t Look Now, But Your Books Are Talking About You

Fallout from the ongoing pandemic has affected all aspects of life — many in negative ways, as might be expected, but some in positive ways, too (even if your name isn’t Jeff Bezos). One of the more pedestrian positives? Warming relations between you and your books.

First let’s look at England comma Jolly Olde. According to book sale monitor Nielsen BookScan, over 200 million print books were sold in England during 2020 — the first time that rampart had been scaled since 2012.

In the Somehow-Still-United States, news for 2020 book sales was equally good. NPD BookScan reported an 8.2% increase in sales from 2019, clocking in at 750.9 million sales — the largest annual American increase since 2010.

Book spines have joyfully photo-bombed us during this pandemic, too. Or maybe Zoom-bombed is a more accurate term. How many talking heads have appeared on our screens with books leering and mugging from over their shoulders? This is usually intentional, of course. Rather than broadcast with the expensive clothes hanger (read: Peloton) in the background, Zoomers set up shop before bookshelves with strategically-placed spines showing both outstanding posture and pedigree. That or they “set up” before strategically-placed illusions (known in the chicanery business as “credibility shelves”).

Not that anyone’s complained. During meetings, looking at book titles behind people gives us something to do while they yammer on. You see self-help books and say, “Hmn.” Or tomes on the Reformation in 16th-century Germany and say, “Interessant!” Or Donald Trump, Junior’s, book Triggered and say, “Seriously?” Or possibly Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, leading to “Yeah, right!” (that’s English for “Oui, droit!”)

You see, books speak clothbound volumes. Paperback volumes, too. About who we are (if we’ve read them) or who we wish we were (if we haven’t). Our relations with our books go deeper than we suspect. They say something about our personalities.

Though the following list is not definitive, here are 9 Ways Our Books Are a Rorschach of Who We Really Are.

1. We are ambitious. Are some of your books fat, like Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (1040 pages), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1,088 pages), or Stephen King’s It (1,168 pages)?

2. We hide our old Monarch Notes (or modern SparkNotes) well. As evidence, I give you leatherbound classics on the shelves competing with your expensive red wine in the aging well category. Check tops of books for dust.

3. We are detail-oriented. Some people arrange their bookshelves by color (at first I thought this was a joke, but I looked it up and it’s a thing!). Others arrange books by topic. Or genre. Or year purchased. Or height (tall boys to the left, shorties tapering right). Or alphabetically by author’s last name (it’s the frustrated librarian in us). Or — wait for it — not at all!

4. We can be depressing. Do you lay your books on their backs or stomachs? Are you a horizontal couch sort vs. a stand-tall vertical one? Do you realize how difficult it is to pull a book from the bottom of a prostrate heap? Like the old tablecloth trick, that. Pull fast and hope nothing falls to the floor as breaking news (cue CNN).

5. We can be one-trick ponies. I once saw a shelf that was all mysteries. Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Sue Grafton, etc. Or pick a genre, any genre. Some bookshelves are just. all. that. Some readers know what they like, that’s all. They’re like me at the ice cream stand selling 100 flavors — I still order black raspberry chip on a waffle cone every time.

6. We can be kind to orphans. Library books have a place in every reader’s house, too. A temporary place. When I visit Dewey’s Decimals at my local library, I sometimes peek at the “Date Due” sticker in the back. If it’s an empty grid, I next look for the date the book was entered. Recently, in the 811’s, I found a copy of Adrian Blevin’s Live from the Homesick Jamboree that had been stamped into circulation on July 24, 2015. For over six years, no one had taken this little gem home! Like a foster parent at the ugly dog shelter, I had to check it out and read it front to back (and like the Ugly Duckling, it was pretty impressive). That’s for you, Adrian!

7. We can cry for help or seek the Holy Grail of Perfection. When you see titles like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 12 Rules for Life, and How to Win Friends and Influence People, you know books are answering the call. Whether they’re answered or not is another thing (maybe saying something about the reader, maybe saying something about the writer).

8. At times, we can cut lines. Two words: “Credibility” and “Bookshelf.”

9. We can be messy. Maybe your system is like mine — no system. Maybe your books like where they may (or may not) land. Maybe you own a copy of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and leave it precariously atop a mish-mash of books. Maybe you refuse to hand over one of your darlings by saying “They all spark joy, and I’m not letting a single one go!” Maybe you dog-ear pages instead of using bookmarks, which horrifies some people. Maybe you annotate in the margins, which horrifies the remaining people. Maybe you even EAT and DRINK while reading, leaving crumbs for the ages in the book’s crevice (spelunking, anyone?) and red wine-stained pages for the ages that look a lot like Gorbachev’s forehead.

Whatever, any of the above can be a reflection of who you are, all through the medium of books. Whether they’re accurate or not will take some research. If someone who knows you well comes over, reread the 9 Ways. Then meet them in the reference section for further discussion.



Saying Goodbye to Your Books


Books are family, some extended and some immediate, but if you are a writing bibliophile like me, your bookshelves are groaning and your day of reckoning is nigh.

Marie Kondo aside (thank you), Judgment Day usually comes in the form of a move, specifically a variety known as the Downsizing Move. While my wife does battle with the dragons known as clothes and sentimental junk (read: stuff saved for the kids, who will not want it), I take arms against books—a thought previously unheard of.

While looking over my shelves, all manner of questions come to the fore. Why do I still have this book? Will I ever read this book? Will I ever reread this book? Even, how on earth did this book get here?

What’s more, I’ve learned a lot about myself. Let me count the reasons why I’ve collected books over the years:

  1. The books are a history of me. That’s right. I find myself remembering when I got the book, why I got the book, how I got the book. Donating or selling these books will be like tearing a chapter out of my own book—my life’s history, a.k.a. The Story of Me.
  2. The books haven’t been read yet. OK, fair enough, but is the desire still there? In confronting myself with this question, I often have to be honest and say no. Why did I buy it, then? Mood purchases. Phase purchases. Impulse purchases. Whatever it might be, I have to face this question and be honest if I hope to give it the old heave-ho.
  3. The books speak of time and place. Oh, man, I loved that trip to Miami Beach! The one where I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises by the pool. And what about the strange week’s vacation at Old Orchard Beach, the one where I read that little-known “beach read” called The Charterhouse of Palma? Man, did I love those books, almost in a sentimental, geographic kind of way! How can I part with them now? Wouldn’t it be like a divorce between time and place?
  4. The books are pretty. They’ve long been evicted from the already-cluttered coffee table, and they’re so big they lie on their big sides, but these coffee table books look first rate because, well, they’ve only been opened once—the day I got them. How can I part with such masterpieces in mint condition? What kind of cruel tyrant am I, anyway? And what about those cute little Penguin paperbacks with their black spines, each calling out the name of a beloved author from Russia’s Golden Age (Turgenev! Tolstoy! Lermontov!)?
  5. The books might be worth money. It’s incredible how many first editions I have on these hallowed shelves. What? Donate riches to the library book sale? No doubt they’d be plucked from the pile by some savvy overseer of sales who will sell them for personal profit! So I search on eBay and discover, verily, that the same first edition as I now hold in my hand sells for a range of prices: $5 to $599. Welcome to eBay, Online Field of Dreams! (And how does one do eBay, anyway? Doesn’t it involve buying stock in the United States Postal Service?)
  6. The book was a gift. What? Donate a book that Aunt Mae gave to me for my 12th birthday? But, but… What if Aunt Mae, in her dotage, visits us for Christmas next year and asks how often I’ve reread that Tom Sawyer she bought me? What if she takes a moment to scour the bookshelves for its place of honor, then casually quips, “Ken, I can’t seem to find that copy of Tom Sawyer I gave you when you were a lad. Can you give me a hand here?”
  7. The books will come back to haunt me. I often wonder about future me, reaching for a book that has always been there. You know, the initial confusion while I’m having trouble finding it, searching on high shelves and low only to discover that Nefarious Me (Past Tense) has dumped it in the name of downsizing or, worse still, the trendy (at the time) name of Marie Kondo. It will seem like I’ve downsized my heart (see Grinch comma green) and not my home!

True, some books will make the cut, and no book should wind up in a cardboard box of the new, smaller home’s basement, but still, these Days of Biblio Reckoning are terrible things. They do not spark joy so much as rebellion. They spark an uncivil war within the conflicted, bookish heart!

Tracking My Book Frontiersman-Like

davy crockett

Today I bumped into an excited colleague. “Hey, I got your book yesterday. So exciting! I’m just bummed I forgot to bring it in for you to sign!”

“My book? You held a copy of my book? In your hands?”

Her smile shifted a little. “Ye-e-es,” she said slowly. “You know: The Indifferent World? Some 80 poems or so?”

I had to shake my head to clear it. “Uh, no. Not to worry. It’s just… I haven’t seen my book. Er. Other than pretty online pictures, I mean.”

“What? How?” She reached out and touched my sleeve. My sleeve appreciated it.

“You see, my wife got carried away and ordered a gross of the things. Maybe she thinks our families are bigger than they are. Maybe she thinks we’re Mormon or good Catholics or something. So I’m afraid the size of this delivery is slowing it down. You know how delivery services are allergic to bulk.”

She laughed. “Ah, well, maybe this weekend.” The bell rang. Kids streamed into the hallway. “Gotta go!” she said. “Maybe I’ll read a few this weekend!”

So cool and casual. So happy. So has-my-book-harbored-in-her-house-and-shows-it.

I decided then and there. I’m going Natty Bumppo. Or Dan’l Boone, maybe. I put on my coonskin hat (wait… Davy Crockett, is it?) and decided to track this baby down, frontiersman-like. It’s unfair, after all, that people are holding my book before I get to. It’s like having a baby, seeing it whisked away, then hearing stories of nurses passing it around to coo at. Surely this is against the Geneva Convention or something! The Articles of Confederation? How about the Federalist Papers? I was against them when I was in school.

I got to work: On the computer, I saw that my book delivery had cleared Amish Country. As you’ll recall from yesterday, it was last seen there with a big GODOT stamp on it. Some twisted Amish-type thought it’d be funny to give it the horse and buggy treatment or something.

But now it was in Knickerbocker, NY. That’s one state away from Massachusetts! I had half a mind to drive the Mass Pike myself, Boston to Stockbridge (a reverse James Taylor). But no… deep breaths…stay calm. I already know what’s in this book. Every blessed poem. So what’s the big deal? What’s the rush?

Bottom line: I’m distracting myself. And as UPS hasn’t swung by yet, wondering maybe if Big Brown will put me out of my misery. This is Friday, after all! Genesis of the weekend! Give me reason to celebrate, people! Stop being so… INDIFFERENT!

(Stay tuned.)