Monday, May 13, 2019

Valerie Nieman’s Library: The Many-Chambered Heart

Reader:  Valerie Nieman
Location:  Greensboro, NC
Collection Size:  About 1,650
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  My uncle Jerry went back into a lightning-struck house to rescue his father’s books, (after first carrying him out of the fire, as he was disabled.) I guess that story means I’d have to grab those once-rescued volumes of Mark Twain (see below) and Emerson and Tennyson. Oh! Of course, the brass-bound 1860 Bible, inscribed in spidery sepia ink with a mother’s poetic benediction to “My Dear Son” as he went to war. It was used for my parents’ wedding and the funerals of my mother’s parents.
Favorite book from childhood:  Jack London’s stories—a volume I bought at a school book fair. Still have it. And Girl of the Limberlost. I was a solitary child wandering the woods, so this book spoke to me—but finding it online in recent years, I was appalled at the prose. Still, it gave me encouragement in my expeditions. Also Huckleberry Finn, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and books about horses and nature including Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.
Guilty pleasure book:  Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Counting the Books

Too many books? Never!

Well, maybe.

I’ve spent a life accumulating, sorting, sifting, giving, receiving. Now with retirement in sight, I weigh each book I buy, thinking how many I soon will have to let go.

They are all over the house, in the wood-paneled “den” where I work, in the living room, the bedroom, the spare bedroom, the former office. At work, they fill two tall bookcases, including one that will kill me if an earthquake happens to hit Greensboro while I’m sitting at my desk.

Until I took on this assignment to write about my library for The Quivering Pen, I’d never counted them. I moved from West Virginia to North Carolina in 1997 with 32 back-breaking boxes of books in my collection, that much I know, and in the words of Jacob Marley, “You have laboured on it, since.” The ponderous boxes of books are many, many more in number now.

For this photo essay, I could have tidied up and organized, given my bookshelves the artificial gloss of Instagram faces, but decided to stick with the gritty reality. The photos don’t show it, but there is organization, of a sort.

In my working area, I have 70-plus books of poetry in the first of two maple bookcases my mother made for herself while working at Ethan Allen in Jamestown, New York. They are 1950s vintage, honey-brown, like buckwheat honey. Then there are 110 (probably half the total, the rest being hidden in crates) of the “contributor copies” of journals and anthologies where I’ve appeared, and copies of my books. On the credenza, 23 books for ready reference. On the antique iron plant stand, 34 books in the on-deck circle for reading. On the fireplace side shelves, 38 antique books that once inhabited the upstairs den at my parents farmhouse in Randolph, New York, with the copperplate signatures of relatives three generations back. A dozen books stacked on the coffee table and a big pile of journals on a little stool. Almost 300 books just in the den.

The living room—what old-timey people would have called the parlor, as it’s used just for guests—has a number of coffee-table books and my favorite volume for inspiration, The Book of Symbols, left open for browsing.

The guest bed room is home to the matching bookcase Mom made at the “splinter factory,” with 50-plus books chosen for the enjoyment of guests, as well as a few journals.

The “library” was once my writing room. When I divorced, I changed things around, moving my writing space into the den, where I can lounge by the fire and where a blank wall before my desk keeps me from getting lost in the outside view.

Not counting extra copies of my own books, I’d say there are close to 900 books in this room, going all the way back to the Little Golden Books my parents bought me, when times were tough but there was always a quarter for a book. Butterflies. The Forest. I have double-decked layers of paperbacks starting with the first ones I bought for myself off the Rexall drug store revolving book rack: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, Dune by Frank Herbert.

The top shelves are filled and over-stacked with signed books bought at readings over the years. Many of these writers have become good friends. Some I’ve never seen again, but their voices come back when I open their books.

The lower shelves house the full set of Mark Twain in green cloth bindings, bought after my maternal grandfather got to know him on a train trip, my go-to reading during long summers as the books were readily available in “the den.” I read Tom Sawyer, of course, I read every volume, and for a while was enamored with the two-volume life of Joan of Arc. And the complete 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, noteworthy as the last edition published with signed articles. It’s all there, the onionskin pages intact, except for the map of New York State that I pulled out for a grade-school project. Yes, I was once a book vandal, to my shame.

Along with all these beloved books, the shelves house bits of memorabilia— a horseshoe crab tail found on an Oak Island beach when my parents lived near there. Sand dollars. Stones from mountain walks and from St. Martin and from the pebbly plage at Nice. A pair of long, narrow dressmaker’s shears. A rabbit that I wood-burned into a piece of plywood for a long-ago Christmas present for my father. Interesting stamps. A plastic bass lure I plucked from a snag at Cassadaga Lake.

At work, I’ve lined the back portion of my desk with copies of my publications, and then filled two tall bookcases with literature that I might use in classes, but also books that I just like to look at, and through. Friends. Also textbooks, of course, and the academic detritus of tenure portfolios and faculty handbooks. I’d estimate 375 books.

Books come to me, novels sent in for reviewing at the newspapers where I’ve worked, books from a former boyfriend who was moving and needed to downsize, books bought at church book sales, books left by friends or traded, even a few books rescued from the street side trash. And so many books have left me, especially books that I’ve lent to students, knowing most would not come back. Two copies of Breece D’J Pancake’s stories went that way. The students needed them more than I did.

It’s daunting to think of the cull to come, how I’ll try to find homes for many of these books. People don’t seem to want physical books as much. Old volumes are sold by the linear foot, and by the color, for people to use as interior decoration. Some will go to my nephew, some to friends, some perhaps to a college collection.

Lately, I’ve been accumulating e-books, handy while traveling although not as satisfying as a book in the hand.

Too many books? Never.

Appalachian heritage is the common thread binding Valerie Nieman’s wide range of writing, from mainstream fiction to horror, and both lyric and narrative poetry. Her latest novel, To the Bones (West Virginia University Press), is a genre-bending satire of the coal industry and its effects on Appalachia. Her third poetry collection, Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse, was published in fall 2018. Nieman’s writing has appeared widely in journals and in numerous anthologies, including Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods and Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology. She teaches workshops at John C. Campbell Folk School, NC Writers Network conferences, and many other venues. A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte and a former journalist, she now teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University.

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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