Robert Gray: More Bookshelves, Please!

One of the things that always frightens me about DVD box sets is when it says how many minutes there are to watch. It's a good thing our shelves don't have that functionality, because it would add up to more than our lifetimes. I try not to collect books in order to amass a particular kind of physical object: all the editions of a particular book or all the first editions of a particular author. I don't completely succeed here.

--Author Emma Smith in a Guardian q&a

Like Smith, I do not consider myself a book collector so much as a book amasser ("late 15th century: from French amasser or medieval Latin amassare, based on Latin massa 'lump.' "). Books do, however, seem to collect me and shelf space is always at a premium. 

It's not that we lack for shelving. A few years ago, we renovated space in the finished basement of our home into a personal library/guest room. There are also bookcases in each of our offices as well as a table near my desk just for ARCs and comp copies of new titles. Other books amass on end tables, bedside tables, basically any convenient flat surface. You know the drill. 

"Too many books? Perhaps what you mean is not enough bookshelves." If you've never seen that meme, you're either not a reader (but then why are you reading this?) or you're not online (if so, congratulations, but then how are you reading this?). Earlier this week, Author's Note bookstore, Medina, N.Y., shared the bookish wisdom on its sidewalk chalkboard, noting on Instagram: "The sun is out, the door is open, and we're here to tell you there is no such thing as too many books."

I've never purchased books by the yard, though I have no objection to people who do. Celebrity Ashley Tisdale went viral recently for admitting to Architectural Digest that she had rushed to fill the in-built shelves in her Hollywood Hills home specifically for an on-camera tour. "These bookshelves, I have to be honest, actually did not have books in [them] a couple of days ago," she said. "I had my husband go to a bookstore, like, 'You need to get 400 books.' " Tisdale dismissed her husband's alternative plan of "collecting books over time, and putting them in the shelves," the Guardian reported. 

More shelves in progress.

Fortunately, Architectural Digest is not coming to our house any time soon, so the strategy here is not buying books by the yard, but adding more shelves wherever they'll fit. We're currently in the process of hacking out space under the basement stairs for a combination storage cabinet and shelving for large art books.  

We try to stay on pace, but the books keep coming. Just this week we bought Geoff Dyer's The Last Days of Roger Federer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Steve Toltz's Here Goes Nothing (Melville House) and Ali Smith's Companion Pieces (Pantheon).

Since I come from more of a personal set of bookends than personal library background, a scene in Ali Smith's novel particularly resonates. Her narrator recalls a precious reading moment in the ruins of a stone castle when she was a student: 

Look, that's me sitting on the stone thirty feet up in the air, my back against more stone, reading a novel for pleasure, it's called Loitering with Intent, in the ruins of some long-gone rich person's castle, someone who would never have imagined possible a day that the roof would be off his house--definitely his house rather than her house here--and never have dreamed that one day the sun would hit this stony corner so uninterruptedly let alone that someone who, given history's predilections, would in other times have been skivvying up and down the stairs, would be sitting in it that sunny day reading a book for pleasure.

In many ways, I'm also that kid whose ancestors would have been servants "skivvying up and down the stairs," yet somehow the elusive personal library has found me, gradually taking over the house. 

And even though I'll always be an amasser rather than a collector, I'm utterly fascinated by those who "have an eye" for rare and precious (however that word is biblio-defined) books. In a recent store newsletter column titled "Choosing Books for One's Library," Tony Weller, co-owner of Weller Book Works, Salt Lake City, Utah, deftly explained how such choices are made: 

"Beginning in my teens I believed a person should have a library," he wrote. "I was fortunate to be surrounded by avid readers who helped me discover worthy books. The stories and ideas in my books excited me. Early in my college years, I discovered the meta-fictional tales in Robert Coover's 1969 collection, Pricksongs and Descants, and they delighted me. One day I stopped into a new Salt Lake City bookstore, Scaliwagiana's, later Scaliwags, run by the late Kent Walgren, who became my friend. There I discovered an attractive and affordable 1st edition of Pricksongs--I bought it and it became my first recognized experience of collector's joy. Then began my desire to own great copies of books I admired. That was about 40 years ago. Listening to good readers--friends, colleagues and customers--my library grew past its practical limit (I like to see them all) possibly 20 years ago. That is another, more complicated story." 

Readers love complicated stories. More bookshelves, please!

--Robert Gray, contributing editor
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