Thursday, October 24, 2013

My Library: Roxana Robinson and Her Grandfather's Bookroom

Reader:  Roxana Robinson
Location:  This house is in northwestern Connecticut.
Collection size:  I have no idea.  Three storeys of books.
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
Favorite book from childhood:  Silver Snaffles by Primrose Cummings
Guilty pleasure book:  P.G. Wodehouse, or any good English detective books.  Or anything by Tana French.

I now live in a house which was built by my grandparents.  They lived in Philadelphia, but spent the summers here in northwestern Connecticut, where my grandfather’s family had been for generations.  The house is set high on a thickly-wooded hillside, overlooking a lake.  It is right in the midst of nature, which is how my grandfather wanted it.  He was a lawyer by profession but a writer for fun.  His study was called the Bookroom.  It had a wall of floor-to-ceiling shelves, a big granite fireplace, and a private door, so he could slip out into the woods if he saw someone arrive whom he didn’t want to see.  “Oh, I’m so sorry, Sam’s not here.  He’s just stepped out,” my grandmother would say, and this would be true.  By then he would be padding down the trail, binoculars in hand, on the watch for whatever excitement nature was about to provide.

The Escape Route
Five years ago, my husband and I took over the house.  To make it habitable year-round, we had to clean it out, putting everything in storage for the renovation.  My grandfather’s writings were in the Bookroom, his nature books and adventure novels.  Also lots of other family stuffan unpublished manuscript of my grandfather’s, nestled in a red cardboard hatbox, rows of his father’s small black hand-written notebooks of journals (he was a minister) and shelves of theological tomes (my family was full of ministers).

Cleaning out the Bookroom was a challenge.  It was done during the winter, and the house had no heating then.  Dozens of old copies of Punch, which had no family connection, and stacks of St. Nicholas Magazine, where my grandfather often published stories.  Each object was opened, scanned for signatures or list of contributors, considered, and put into one of the piles: Town Jumble Sale, cousin so-and-so, ask someone, keep.  It gives me a headache to remember this, because those decisions were difficult.  Those things had been in the house since 1928, for nearly a hundred years.  Who was I to throw them out?  I still had my grandfather’s brown porkpie hat, that had hung on the hook in the hall closet my whole life.  He died in 1948.  No-one had ever moved it.  But if I didn’t move things, where was I to put my own life?  My own books?

It wasn’t only my grandfather’s books, though there were many of those: The Out-of-Doors Club, Boy Scouts in the Wilderness, The Inca Emerald, Lords of the Wild.  And there are other family members whose books stand beside his: we are writers on both sides of the family, and have been so for generations.  I haven’t read them all, though my mother had.  But I have them.  They’re on the shelves.

Since this is only a summer house, the Bookroom wasn’t my grandfather’s main library.  It’s relatively small, and even now there are only shelves on two-and-a-half sides.  Which meant that we had more books than we could fit into it.

My husband reads as much as I do, and together we have a mighty library.  So when we renovated we built new shelves all over the house: floor to ceiling in the front hall, for biography, art and gardening; floor to ceiling in my husband’s study, for opera, Wagner, Proust and watercolor artists; low shelves (under the eaves) in my study over the garage, for my own strange gathering: certain favorite novels, books I teach from, books on O’Keeffe and American art, and a conglomeration of war books, including the Marine Officer’s Handbook.

Alice Munro on display
But the Bookroom, the real library at the heart of the house, holds only fiction, which runs in strict alphabetical order up and down the two and a half sides of the room.  A desk lives against one wall, blocking access to certain shelves, and I became very unhappy when I realized that Alice Munro might have to disappear behind it.  I didn’t mind when I thought it would be Nabokov, because I’m long over Nabokov, but I will never be over Alice, and so I fudged it.  I shifted things around so that Alice stands serenely over the desk, unobstructed.  I like seeing big swathes of my favorite authors: the dark glossy backs of Trollope’s wonderful Palliser novels, and Updike’s long upright row of bright covers, near the doorway, upper right.  When my grandfather was alive, that wall had no bookshelves, only his desk, and a velvet-backed framed array of his running medals from Yale.  The bookshelves were on either end of the room.  The other walls were of a dark porous wallboard, water-stained, and riddled with ragged holes where snakes and mice and squirrels had gained illegal entry.  I remember all this, and I remember my grandfather’s rickety rustic desk, long legs and one shallow drawer, a couple of bookshelves on top of the desk.  The old soft brown blotter.

But now that earlier place has merged in my mind with the room as it is today.  It still holds much of my grandfather: the high shelf is lined with his books, about the natural world and the creatures who inhabit it, the adventures that await if you step out the back door and start down the path and into the woods.  It was my grandfather who found the deer antlers that still lie on top of the mantelpiece, cutting the air into smooth beautiful curves.  He’s still there, in many ways.  But the Bookroom also holds my own life now, and my husband’s.  His novels, dozens and dozens of them, are interspersed here with mine: it was he who introduced me to William Styron, Paul Scott, Evelyn Waugh and Proust.  It was he who gave me the big handsome dictionary that stands beneath the window.

All libraries hold the shifting, sifting contents of our minds, as we move through our lives.  The Bookroom holds a bit more than that; it seems to contain some fragmentary presence from each generation, each spouse, each year of this old house.

My grandfather’s hat rode around in the back of my car during the two years of the renovation.  Now it’s back in the hall closet.  It hangs on a hook over my husband’s tennis racket.

Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books: five novels, most recently Sparta, three collections of stories and the biography of Georgia O’Keeffe.  Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker and Harper’s, as well as many other publications.  She has received fellowships from the Macdowell Colony, the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation.  She lives in New York and Connecticut.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-quality photos (minimum 150 dpi) of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.

Author photo by David Ignaszewski


  1. Sorry. I do not want to visit this library.

    I want to move in and never leave. Books, a cushy chair and a fireplace? Biblio heaven!