Wednesday, August 9, 2017

There Will Be Boxes: Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s Library

Reader:  Caitlin Hamilton Summie
Location:   Knoxville, TN
Collection size:  Estimated 1,000
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  Life in Ancient Rome by F. R. Cowell
Favorite book from childhood:  Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman
Guilty pleasure book:  I don't have one!

The question has always been this: can I fit all the books in the house?

The answer has always been: no.

Growing up, my parents purchased sleek wooden bookcases made in Scandinavia and filled them with volume after volume. Avid readers, they accumulated thousands of books before they retired to the South and downsized both house and library. Yet their house never looked stuffed to spilling. Their books always looked beautifully cared for. Tended. The titles that overflowed the shelves onto end tables and chairs looked loved, the others remaining bright and orderly on their shelves.

Until recently, I’d never settled long enough to tend my shelves. My library was made up of first editions, specialty art editions, cookbooks (for someone who rarely cooked, I always had aspirations), novels, histories, and books I’d promoted. A few computer manuals. Reliable reference books. One beloved children’s book (Friends by Helme Heine).

Once, when I thought I had settled for good in the West, I had visions of building an entire wall of bookshelves in my condo, but then shortly thereafter I met my husband and we moved to a larger space. Oh, the glory of space! But our rental wouldn’t allow us to hang pictures let alone build bookshelves. Most of my library ended up in boxes stacked in an unfinished basement.

Why unpack? we thought then. After all, we planned to head out in a year, aiming East. It took much longer than a year for us to head East, though, and for many years it seemed moving along the Front Range in Colorado was a tradition as we bounced from one home to the next, boxes and people more raggedy with each displacement.

When we finally decided it was time to head East toward family, I unloaded boxes of books. To see what we had. Here we were, off again, but this time cross country and once again moving ourselves. It was time to consider what we could carry with us. In addition to my books, we now had our children’s books (roughly 300-plus), and my husband needed to be allowed a few, though his collection is small and curated, whereas everyone else’s book collection sprawls.

As I unloaded the boxes, I developed a new rule: if I had owned the book for twenty years and not read it, it went into the “donate” pile. Stacks and stacks of books went out of the house to the library, along with a few titles I decided I would never read again or which had gotten bumped down a notch or two in my esteem. I donated my Madhur Jaffrey cookbook, feeling sad but resolute. If I hadn’t needed the cookbook for many years while it waited in a box, it would be best to pass it along.

When you are loading your own moving van (again), a person gets tough.

Except with children’s books. Chewed, crusty, a few pristine—they all moved with us.

And so we Summies collected our beloved stories and headed out.

We arrived here in the South deep at night, into a neighborhood without many streetlights and no sidewalks and quiet enough to hear the thrum of crickets. I was so grateful to have arrived safely that I couldn’t absorb much, except that we had made it. In the morning I got a good look at the house and yard. Lots of beautiful trees and a wide swath of land. Not a lot of house. Ideal, except for the book situation. As my children relished playing in the dirt in their first-ever yard, and running across the stretch of grass that was now theirs to run every day, we did what we’d always done: we unloaded boxes into the garage for lack of space.

Which is what we did a year later when we moved.


At that point, I quoted my friend Natalie to my husband: “The next time I move, it will be because they are carrying me out.”

After six years here (the longest time I have lived anywhere in so long, I can’t remember), I began to unpack.

Unpack. The word unsettled me. I was so used to moving, I didn’t know how to stay.

Amidst unopened wedding gifts and scads of shoe samples from my husband’s previous job, we found my books. I unloaded them onto IKEA bookshelves which we re-purposed to fit our space. Look at them! I thought, giddy. Children’s books. Histories. Novels. Picture books. A cookbook about foods for the pack that I was pretty sure should have been returned to my friend, Jim, with whom I had lost touch amidst the multiple moves. (Jim, I have your book!)

Later, I got a little upset. My book about everyday life in the Roman Empire was missing. Among the stacks, I noticed that one missing spine... a favorite. Yes, I adore a book that tells me how people dressed and ate in ancient Rome.

Finally, I found it.

Thank goodness.

But what I have not found—still—is room for the rest of my books, presently gathering dust in our ridiculously overfull garage. My old Judy Blumes. A book series my parents had as kids. Literary novels. History titles. But they will stay, even if I can’t fit them in the house.

Lately I have been thinking more carefully about our garage, about how big it is. Our garage is massive. Our house was clearly built by someone with specific ideas about living. It has its quirks. Did the builder have large SUVs to fit into the garage or was he planning to create a wood shop? Why is there no linen closet? Why does the master bath include a make-up desk fit for a theatre actress?

But no matter. Someday I’ll take out the make-up desk and make a linen closet.

And that garage? Well, it could hold bookshelves. Quite a few, in fact.

Caitlin Hamilton Summie earned an MFA with Distinction from Colorado State University, and her short stories have been published in Beloit Fiction Journal, Wisconsin Review, Puerto del Sol, Mud Season Review, Long Story, Short and other journals. Her first book, a short story collection called To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, is now out from Fomite and earned a starred review from Foreword Reviews. She spent many years in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado before settling with her family in Knoxville, Tennessee. She co-owns the book marketing firm, Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, founded in 2003. Find her online at

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.

Author photo by Colin Summie

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