Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Reading My Bookcase

A bibliophile confronts her stash of unread books

When my carpet was cleaned this past summer, I had to move one of the little shelving units I’d been using as a bookcase for several years. Inexpensive and flimsy, it gave up the ghost as I tried to carry it to a room without carpet. Like Humpty Dumpty, it fell apart and refused all attempts at being put back together.

After I bought a new, sturdier bookcase, it occurred to me that this would be a great time to rearrange my personal library. My built-in bookshelves contain the classics and books that made an impression on me when I was writing my dissertation on Victorian women. They’re the ones that I’d like to think say who I am. The new shelves, I decided, would be reserved for current projects, and I’d put all my unread books on the shelf in my spare bedroom.

It seemed like a simple plan. Of course I knew I had a fair number of unread books. Every avid reader has them. But what I didn’t realize was exactly how many. They more than filled the bookcase in the bedroom. I had to shove some on top of others to make them all fit, and the librarian in me was a little appalled. I wondered how I had gotten into this predicament.

Well, wondered is not exactly the right word. I know how this happened. Every time I go into a bookstore, there is always one book that calls out to me. It goes something like this:

Book: Take me home.

Me: Not today. I am already reading two books, and I have several on my to-read list. And you’ll be here the next time I come by.

Book: Take me home.

Me: I said no. I don’t have much money right now. And I have so many books already that I don’t even have a place to put you.

Book: Take me home.

Me: Okay.

And since I’m in a bookstore (either brick or online) at least once a week, it’s no surprise that I have quite the collection.

I remember how I came by some of the books in the unread pile. I wrote my master’s thesis on Virginia Woolf and, in doing so, read the first of Leonard Woolf’s five-volume autobiography. Wanting to know more but not wanting to invest the time reading all five volumes would take, I bought a biography. But then I moved on to other interests, and Leonard was left languishing on a shelf.

The same thing happened with my president books. At one point, I decided that I could learn a great deal about American history by reading a biography of each president or first lady. I made great progress at first but got bogged down with the four men who preceded Abraham Lincoln. The biographies of Ida McKinley and Grover Cleveland, which I picked up in a used bookstore, have been patiently waiting their turn while I slog through the shortest volume on James Buchanan that I could find.

But I really don’t remember how most of these books came into my possession. I’m guessing that some were part of my tendency to read everything on a subject. So if I liked one book by Carrolly Erickson, I then bought them all, not imagining that I might just get a wee bit tired of the Tudors. Some were presents. When you’re known as booklover and an Anglophile, people often find books they think you’ll like. And I must have thought so, too, since I still had them.

And that, I realized, was the key factor here: Those books all survived several cullings, which meant that I had repeatedly decided they were worth reading. So it seemed time to do just that.

My first choice was an easy one, and a relative newcomer to the pile: Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine, a book of short stories by Kevin Wilson. I absolutely adored his novel The Family Fang, and a short story could be consumed in one night, so I’d be able to tell after just a couple whether I wanted to read the whole book. I did. I consumed it.

If the first choice had been a failure, I might have let my to-read bookcase gather dust for another few years, but, buoyed by Wilson’s brilliance, I picked out a novel — Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton — and finished it in three days.

I have to admit that I was a little surprised by my own surprise at how much I enjoyed those books. In both cases, I bought them with the clear anticipation of enjoying them. But as time went by, I must have assumed there was something wrong with them, sitting there untouched on a bookcase. And then that assumption became a hardened prejudice. A prejudice, like most others, that had little basis in fact.

But when I came to Leonard Woolf, I suddenly remembered why I hadn’t read this book. By the time I finished my thesis, I was irritated with Bloomsbury, exhausted by their never-ending letters and diaries and, quite frankly, their self-absorption. So it was with some hesitation that I picked up Victoria Glendinning’s biography. Within 10 pages, I was hooked. In most of my academic reading, Leonard was seen as little more than a footnote in the life of Virginia. Now I got to know the man, a Jewish boy in a country that has always been snobbishly anti-Semitic, the public servant in Ceylon, the husband who did indeed help keep Virginia alive to share her genius, and the man who lived many decades after Virginia’s death. When I came to the end of his long life, I was impressed with Leonard independent of his connection to Virginia. (But I’m still not going to read that five-volume autobiography.)

With three long-neglected books under my belt, I felt proud of my progress. But just as I finished with Woolf, a new mystery by one of my favorite writers, Louise Penny, came out. Then a book I had on hold was available at the library. While there, I noticed a novel by another favorite author, Tana French, which I had somehow missed. Then the holiday season was upon me. A colleague gave me two books about England — “I thought of you when I saw them.” My staff presented me with a gift certificate to a local bookstore. And I agreed to write three book reviews for the next month.

So the spaces in my to-read bookcase have filled right back up, and then some. Maybe I should stop feeling guilty and accept that this is just a natural occurrence in the life of a booklover. I need to buy more bookcases.

Reading My Bookcase

Copyright ©2019 by Faye Jones. All rights reserved. Faye Jones, dean of learning resources at Nashville State Community College, writes the Jolly Librarian blog for the college’s Mayfield Library. She earned her doctorate in 19th-century literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.