Thursday, September 18, 2014

My Library: Heather Corbally Bryant's Family Shelf

Heidi Lynn Photography
Reader:  Heather Corbally Bryant
Location:  1925 Craftsman Bungalow outside Boston
Collection size:  650 (and steadily growing).
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (a signed first-edition would be best)
Favorite book from childhood:  Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Guilty pleasure book:  Diana, Princess of Wales by Martin Gitlin

So I just did the math: since I began graduate school in Ann Arbor, I have moved thirteen times.  When I moved from Michigan to Massachusetts with my brand new PhD to begin teaching at Harvard, my book collection weighed more than my car.  I learned that fact because I also put my car on the moving truck.  With each move has brought new bookcases, new studies, new rooms of my own, or not, and a purging of books.  As an only child, I am now the keeper of all the books my parents and children collected as well.  I think my own estimate of the collection size tends toward the conservative.  My moves have shared some commonalities, always a review of the collection, trying to pare it down to the essentials.  This last move from Pennsylvania back to Massachusetts brought the largest pruning and, having just reviewed my entire contents of my collection, I now know where all my books are located--something I had not known for years.  Some I have lost, some I have given away, and some have disappeared.  For the first time in my life, I have organized my collection in a less than haphazard manner.  As the daughter of a librarian, I have resisted doing that for many years.  But for this most recent move, I decided to gather all the books written by or about members of my family, including Assigned to Adventure, a book about women foreign correspondents with a section on my grandmother, Irene Corbally Kuhn.  My books have become a metaphor for my life.

Rene Kuhn Bryant
I am the only remaining member of "my family of origin."  Hence, I have bookended my own books with those by or about my parents and my grandmother.  My father, Douglas Wallace Bryant, was chief librarian at Harvard University.  When he retired, the University presented him with a keepsake, a Hollis book on libraries.  I was proud of how many libraries he built, grateful for how many books he gave me, and I always looked him up in Who's Who.  For someone who loved the printed word, he did not like to write himself.  Consequently, the books here are about him, but not by him.  Then I begin with my first work, a collection of early poems I presented him for his birthday one June.  He worried about my career path as a poet, yet he professed to love the works I gave him.  After that, in chronological order came my undergraduate thesis about John's Ruskin's autobiography, Praeterita, which won the Boston Ruskin Prize (who knew there was such a thing?).  It was a substantial amount of money because the prize had not been awarded for several years.  I bought a lapis lazuli necklace in honor of my love of Yeats.  Then I put my academic articles together--Yeats, Eliot, (included in the Southam book on Eliot), poems published in the literary journals of the prep schools where I first taught.  Towards the middle I placed my dissertation, and the following book version, which won the Donald R. Murphy prize for best first book (I bought my only pair of real gold earrings).  Not in keeping with chronology, I put my creative writing works together: In Other Words, the first journal which accepted my second published poem; my novel; my two poetry chapbooks; the Yeats' manuscripts I worked on at Michigan, published by the Cornell University Press; the article I published on the creative arts response to war in Review; and the several book reviews I wrote for the Harvard Review while I was teaching there.

Then I moved on to my maternal ancestors.  I cherish the two novels my own mother wrote before she married under the name Rene Kuhn: 34 Charleton (which won the Hopwood Prize at Michigan) and Cornelia.  Although she edited many more books, and worked as a reporter in the early days of Life magazine, those were her only two published novels, both finished before she turned 30.  This shelf anchors me, reminds me of my place in the world.  At my mother's memorial service last year, someone asked me what I intended to leave as my legacy, being lucky to have the parents I did.  I have to confess the question startled me, gave me pause.  While I know my children are my most important legacy, I am proudest to be a mother than any other title I have been called in my life, I now realize that my writing is an important piece of what I will leave behind.

The shelf below represents a more eclectic group of writers, either my favorite writers, or gifts from my favorite people.  First, Rumer Godden, China Court, given to me the summer after college by my friend, Marguerite; several collections of my favorite poets, given to me by my mom and other close friends: Mary Oliver; Edward Taylor; The Piano Tuner from my friends Bill and Anna Marie; Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things; Caramelo written by Sandra Cisneros; My Sky Blue Trades by Sven Birkerts who I was lucky enough to teach with; a book on Ruskin which my dad gave me; The Hours; a history of Shanghai during the years my grandparents lived there (where they met and married); Yeats' Collected Poems (when pressed to pick one poet, he's my favorite); The Pain Chronicles, a book I admire by Melanie Thernstrom; a collection of Elizabeth Spires; Louise Erdrich's The Blue Jay's Dance; an Elizabeth Bowen novel; a fascinating book of literary criticism, perhaps my favorite, by Robert Coles: Irony in the Mind's Life; and Joyce's Finnegan's Wake to sate my fascination with the inexplicable.  As far as favorite novelists, F. Scott Fitzgerald always comes to the top of my list, as far as my obsession with Princess Diana, there is really nothing to say.  Through all the births, deaths, moves, and names, here are the words of my life, unchanged.

Heather Corbally Bryant received her A.B. from Harvard College and her PhD from the University of Michigan.  She has taught at Michigan, Harvard, Penn State, and is now teaching in the Writing Program at Wellesley College.  She has published a wide range of books from her academic work on Elizabeth Bowen, How Will the Heart Endure: Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of War; many articles on Yeats, Eliot, and Sean O'Faolain; a novel, Through Your Hands; and two poetry chapbooks, Cheap Grace and Lottery Ticket.  She is currently at work on a work of creative non-fiction, What Our Mothers Never Told Us.

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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