Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Marital Division of Books: Courtney Elizabeth Mauk's Library

Reader:  Courtney Elizabeth Mauk
Location:  Manhattan apartment
Collection size:  400 or 500 (and steadily growing)
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (I’m imagining mine is a signed first-edition)
Favorite book from childhood:  Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
Guilty pleasure book:  I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I grew up in Ohio in a house crammed with books.  The bookcases my dad built on every wall of the living room actually sagged from the weight.  We spent weekends and vacations going to bookstores and almost never gave a book away.  I loved living in such a full house.  To me, books have always represented home.  They’re the last things I box up when I move, the first I unpack.

For the past ten years, I’ve lived in New York City.  In that time, I’ve had six different apartments.  First was the room in Harlem that fit a double bed and a folding table desk; I could squeeze between the two only if the desk chair was pushed in all the way.  Next, a creepy, dank room one block over, big but full of leftover furniture, none of which was useful, none of which I was permitted to throw out.  That was followed by a windowless bedroom in Bushwick, another closet-sized room in Bed-Stuy.  You get the picture.  By necessity, I had to get strict with my book addiction, an effort aided by my limited funds.  The Brooklyn Public Library became my library.  Only the most beloved titles were boxed up and taken from one apartment to the next, and even then, I had to periodically cull the stacks on my floor.

But now, finally, I have some room to expand.  After spending three years in a 500-square-foot place on the Upper West Side, my husband and I moved into a two-bedroom last summer.  And our library is spreading out.

In the living room we have three large bookcases and one small bookcase leftover from our last apartment.  One of the large bookcases belongs to me, one to my husband, and one’s communal, with the small bookcase for spillover.  The designations are rough.  For example, Russell Banks lives on my husband’s bookcase even though he’s one of my favorite authors.  My husband likes him, too, but his list of favorites is shorter than mine, so I’m willing to give him Banks.  When we first moved in, we put books together by author and genre.  I’ve never been so organized as to alphabetize, but I have a lot of respect for those who do.  Over time, our order has loosened.  Sometimes that bothers me and I’ll go on a grouping frenzy.  Most of the time, though, I’m OK with the encroaching chaos.

Communal Shelves
Let’s start with the communal bookcase.  From the top down, we have travel books, nonfiction, general fiction (most of these are books I’ve read but which didn’t win top placement on my bookcase), classics (fancy copies of Shakespeare and Edith Wharton, ragtag paperbacks of everyone else—someday we’ll upgrade), and poetry (many of these are from my grad school days; I’d love to grow our poetry section).  You’ll notice in the photos that we use our bookcases as display shelves, too, which would have been sacrilegious in my childhood home.  But we like the way the hodgepodge looks and don’t have much extra display space anyway.  As the library grows, we’ll have to figure something out.

His Shelves
On to my husband’s bookcase.  In addition to Banks, this is the home of Denis Johnson, Kazuo Ishiguro, George Saunders, Jeffrey Eugenides, Deborah Eisenberg, and Evan S. Connell.  The bookcase also contains a few travel books; copies of Spires, the literary journal my husband edited in college; and on the lower shelves, nonfiction (Jared Diamond, David Foster Wallace’s essays, Hyperbole and a Half) and assorted business books.

Her Shelves
My bookcase is in my office area, which is located in the corner of the living room, across from our dining table.  The top shelf used to be reserved for nonfiction (Joan Didion, Ellis Avery’s The Smoke Week, Stephen O’Connor’s Will My Name Be Shouted Out?, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family), but fiction has drifted up there (Alexis M. Smith’s Glaciers, Cary Holladay’s The Palace of Wasted Footsteps).  On the lower shelves, I have my canon: Mary Gaitskill, Joyce Carol Oates, Colum McCann, Ian McEwan, J.M. Coetzee.  There are sections for Kelly Braffet, Jennifer Egan, Tessa Hadley, Dan Chaon, Laura van den Berg.  All the Engine Books titles are here, grouped together in chronological order by publication date.  Also here are recent favorites, including: Caitlin Horrock’s This Is Not Your City, Cari Luna’s The Revolution of Every Day, Pamela Erens’ The Virgins, Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn.

Favorites Shelf
My to-be-read books are laid on top of the rows and shelved when I’ve finished them.  Right now, these include Headlong by Ron MacLean and Girls I Know by Douglas Trevor.  Currently I’m reading The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, so that gets the prized position of the windowsill next to my yellow reading chair.

After years of necessary deprivation, I’m pleased by how our library is growing.  We have a long way to go before the sagging shelves of my childhood, but for our first semi-permanent feeling NYC apartment, we’re doing a pretty good job of creating a space that feels settled and rooted, like home.

Courtney Elizabeth Mauk is the author of two novels, Orion’s Daughters (Engine Books, 2014) and Spark (Engine Books, 2012).  Her essays and stories have appeared in The Literary Review, PANK, Wigleaf, and Five Chapters, among others.  She lives in New York City and teaches at the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop.  Click here to visit her website.

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.

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