Thursday, November 19, 2015

Amy Gustine’s Library: A Post-Apocalypse Bunker of Books

Reader:  Amy Gustine
Location:  Toledo, Ohio
Collection Size:  800, give or take
The one book I’d run back into a burning building to rescue:  Honestly? My current project, unless I was smart enough to back it up off site. I don’t own any family Bibles, signed first editions, or otherwise irreplaceable books.
Favorite book from childhood:  The Trixie Belden mystery series.
Guilty-pleasure book:  Dewey by Vicki Myron—nonfiction about a kitten abandoned on a bitterly cold Iowa night in a library’s book drop. Found in the morning nearly dead, Dewey is revived and becomes permanent guardian of the stacks and a community treasure. I’m a sucker for stories about animals who save us from ourselves. I say it’s a “guilty” pleasure because being brought to tears and laughter by a story about a cat seems like something I should feel guilty about—but I don’t.

More than anything else, books vastly expand our world and provide a refuge from it. Since I’m an introvert wary of received wisdom, they were no doubt my inevitable destination, but childhood circumstances probably paved the way. My sister and I split the week between our maternal and paternal grandparents, spent Saturday with Mom and Sunday with Dad. In essence I had six parents in four different neighborhoods. In addition, we attended a small, private school, which meant we had no neighborhood playmates. Because all my homes offered a single TV with three channels, there wasn’t much else to do but read. No matter—a book or two can easily be taken from house to house. Sometimes you find them just lying around. That’s how during grade school I came to work my way through James Michener, James Fenimore Cooper, Edna Ferber, and the first three of V.C. Andrew’s Dollanganger series (forbidden reading, but Grandma was busy making dinner). Prior to that I had been a big Trixie Belden fan (think a younger, more-awkward Nancy Drew). By high school I had found Salinger (Franny and Zooey was my favorite) and the Russians. Crime and Punishment still sits in my all-time top ten.

When I was fourteen my mom let me commandeer a wall of shelves in the guestroom. Then I went off to college, Mom downsized and my books slipped away. I regret losing the marginal comments. The few books I still have from that time are like reading old diaries, but better—they don’t reveal my crushes.

Like my mother, my inner HGTV-snob wants a house ready to photograph on short notice. Like my father, I take comfort in knowing that even post-apocalypse, I would have enough reading material to keep busy for decades. (Yes, I manage to ignore other apocalyptic challenges like food, clean water, and roving bands of cannibals). Fortunately, I have a home office, a living room and family room. The fiction lives in my office arranged alphabetically by author. My current obsession is with the brilliant Dan Chaon.

I also keep story anthologies, literary magazines, books about writing, reference books and research in my office, segregated on their own shelves but otherwise unorganized. Two shelves are dedicated to the to-be-read pile, roughly sorted by novels, story collections, and non-fiction. I’ve got some James Wood up there right now, Thrown by Kerry Howley, and Honor by Elif Shafak, a writer my exchange student from Pakistan turned me onto. When I was writing a novel with a Pakistani character, my research shelves held books on Islam, South Asia, and the Middle East. Now this area holds material for a project I’m not sure I’ll write yet, so I can’t reveal its contents. It might jinx me.

In front of the books sit mementos. The round wooden box was on my grandmother’s screened porch. As a child I always felt boxes with lids were going to have something wonderful and mysterious inside (they never did). Some of the other items are props I’ve used for writing projects, like the car, a replica of one a character owned, and the vase, a piece similar to a jar in my novel about Czech immigrants.

Some of the living room and family room shelves are arranged for looks, in vertical and horizontal stacks interspersed with tchotchkes and photos. There I shelve poetry and nonfiction very roughly arranged by topic and author, but also placed where they look good, or based on size, so the big books are on the bottom of the stack. I have oversized gardening books (lots of pictures) and several coffee-table books on cats (cue Dewey). I also have a set of Harvard Classics my mother gave me (most of which I haven’t read—sorry Cellini, you’re reserved for the apocalypse).

My favorite non-fiction topics are psychology, anthropology, ethics, religion and evolution. My favorite essayist is Alain de Botton. My favorite writer on religion is Karen Armstrong. The single biggest game changer I’ve read as an adult is Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. I would love to see this adapted for young readers and made a standard high school text. (If the job comes available, somebody let me know.)

I borrow books from the library often, but when I read something I love, I allow myself to buy it. Buying a book I’ve already read used to feel indulgent, but I decided it was better than avoiding the library because I’m afraid of finding a book I don’t want to give back. Still, my tendency to feel crushed by clutter requires brutality. I can’t ask myself if I’d like to own a book (the answer is always yes; it’s a book isn’t it?). Instead I ask: Might I read this again, loan it to a friend, browse excerpts for inspiration, or use it to teach a class or write an essay? Because I insist on keeping the fiction alphabetized, when I find no room for a new novel or story collection, I subject nearby hangers-on to this litmus test. Sometimes a handy space opens; sometimes I sigh and start rearranging shelves.

Digital books serve my neat-nick impulse, make browsing annotations easy and assuage my fear of being caught somewhere without something to read, but they have so many failings. My iPad is always tempting me to check email or click over to “breaking news.” I can’t loan digital books to friends. I’m worried Amazon or Apple might take my books away someday. Once in a while, amid numerous in-process books and magazines, I forget that I was reading something digital because the book isn’t lying on my end table...So sad, but true. Also, digital books are just so....unbook-like. It might be asking too much that they smell and feel like real books, but why do they so often lack the same lovely cover art? Why don’t they include the dust jacket copy?

Worst of all, digital books don’t beg to be thumbed through by a bored kid. My office faces the street. One year on Halloween a teenage girl spied my shelves through the window. She commented that she had never seen so many books before. “And a house,” she said with evident amazement. It reminded me how lucky some of us are to find James Michener lying next to Grandpa’s chair. As children, we often have only what is within reach inside the four walls of our home. If a book is in reach, the walls somehow both come down and fold protectively around you. That’s the greatest gift my six parents ever gave me.

Amy Gustine is the author of the story collection You Should Pity Us Instead from Sarabande Books (out February 2016). Her fiction has received Pushcart Special Mention and appeared in several publications, including The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, North American Review and Black Warrior Review. She lives in Ohio.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos 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.

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