Thursday, November 3, 2016

All the Hungry Possibilities: Elizabeth J. Church’s Library

Reader:  Elizabeth J. Church
Location:  Los Alamos, NM
Collection Size:  est. 6,000
The one book I’d run back into a burning building to rescue:  This question violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. But okay, since you INSIST–my Riverside Shakespeare (and it weighs a ton).
Favorite book from childhood:  Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders
Guilty pleasure book:  Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

Each time I’ve moved over the years, friends have accused me of mislabeling boxes. “No one can have this many books!” they’ve moaned. But there’s been no deception on my part. I really do own–and love and adore and need–that many books. This obsession, this indefatigable love, will preclude my ever taking off in a tear-drop trailer–unless I lug a second trailer full of books in my wake.

It began with my mother reading to me and my brothers from The Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature (1955). We memorized traditional verses about Little Miss Muffet and Diddle Diddle Dumpling, and we played patty-cake while chanting. The book was so loved that my mother in later years had to repair the binding. Ever a product of the Great Depression, she used what was at hand: duct tape.

I progressed to Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. I bought my own Nancy Drew books with my allowance (the books cost $1.00, but with an allowance of 25 cents per week, 10 cents of which had to go to a church offering, that took a long while to earn). My mother had grown up poor, unable to own her own books, but from my father’s childhood library I had glorious old copies of Freckles, A Girl of the Limberlost, several volumes of the Bobbsey Twins, and Black Beauty.

I devoured all the classics: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and the exquisite Mr. Dickens. I had to be told to go outside and play, to “go get some fresh air”–which meant I hid a book beneath my clothing, went outside, and read.

In high school, I was fortunate enough to have an English teacher who saw my hunger and set about to feed it with consistently nutritional meals. She designed an individual study course for me (then an unheard of approach to teaching). She called it “Great Books.” I was allowed to suggest titles, and she filled in the gaps with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and T. S. Eliot, among others. The two of us would then sit and discuss what I’d read. In retrospect, I think she might have enjoyed our conversations nearly as much as I did, as I recognize what a delight it is to find a young mind eager for books and ideas, someone who is discovering the power, the beauty of words, and the compelling nature of shared stories.

In undergraduate school, I majored in English and minored in French–and I read (slowly, often stumbling) Flaubert, Gide, Zola, Balzac and others in their original French. I found Faulkner, whose darkness spoke most directly to me. Joan Didion, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, and All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. I shouted with joy while reading the poetry of Shakespeare, and I put on the highest pedestal Milton’s Paradise Lost. With one generous professor, I sat cross-legged on his office floor and along with him nearly wept over the full-blown roses of Keats, Shelley, and Byron.

Over the ensuing years, all of those volumes have accompanied me from apartment to apartment, home to home. I always dreamt of having a physical, personal library like the ones in Jane Eyre or other such novels. Finally, I gave myself that, and I had bookshelves built to surround my bed. I put fiction around my head, non-fiction facing me on the opposite wall.

It was sheer heaven to see the tentative morning light bless the volumes, and at night to think of all the books I’d consumed, as well as all of the hungry possibilities that still awaited me.

I practiced law for many decades, but in the wake of my husband’s premature death I chose to walk away and instead do what I’d always wanted to do: write books of my own. To do that, I had to give up my home–and that precious library–for a smaller, more affordable house. “Smaller” meant that I also had to give up books. I cut my collection in less than half–an excruciating debridement that at times sliced into bone, even marrow. And yet, once I moved into my cozy new home, I discovered I had to give up even more books just to be able to fit the rest of my life into the house, which was half the size of my previous home.

Two years later, I find myself hunting for books that I thought I’d kept but instead reluctantly let leave me–and I am gradually repurchasing those that I realize I simply don’t want to be without. The library is still divided into fiction and non-fiction. And yes, there are towers of to-be-read books (always a reassuring sight to this hoarder). Both sets of shelves include sections on Vietnam, which is an abiding fascination to me. They are the men of my generation, the men who have populated my life and whom I’ve loved: Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain and the unsurpassed The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Most harrowing–and excruciatingly intimate–is Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, a compilation of letters written by soldiers and POWs.

For the most part, my library is arranged by “Where will one of this width and size fit?” But I also have shelves that represent the Civil War, Transcendentalism, psychology and philosophy, and my current Olympian Gods of Fiction–such as Colm Toibin and Colum McCann, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Jean Rhys, D. H. Lawrence, and Michael Cox.

With the publication of my novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, I made one change to my library. I was able, at long last, to fulfill the most constant wish of my life: that I could see my name on a binding and place it next to whomever I chose. I’ll let you find where Atomic resides this week (she moves about in uncanny ways).

Elizabeth J. Church’s debut novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, was a long time coming–it was published when she’d reached age sixty. Atomic was recently released in the United Kingdom, and it comes out in paperback from Algonquin Books in the U.S. in March 2017. Her second novel, Map of Venus, is slated for publication in the spring of 2018. Elizabeth left the practice of law to pursue her lifelong dream of writing, and she has never–for a moment–regretted that decision.

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.


  1. I have that same taped up book of children's stories, and my binding ripped, too!

    1. It was a marvelous start to the magic worlds of books.-- Elizabeth J. Church

  2. Elizabeth---I re-read Freckles and Girl of The Limberlost about every 5 years to remember why I write, how my childhood experiences and feelings were known and felt by others, and to seek the sense of redemption I hope to conjure for myself and others in my own work. I still pull out a Nancy Drew here and there to read in one sitting while soaking in the tub. A good mystery has a good plot. Best to be reminded! And we have favorites in common, too. On another note: I love that you move your book around your own shelves. But I must say, if I had all of those books in my bedroom, I would never want to go to sleep. Some habits die hard. I'm thinking there's a flashlight somewhere near your bed. Thanks for sharing!

    1. How absolutely perfect that we share Freckles and Limberlost! I wonder if they're still being read.......I recall disappearing into those worlds, feeling the forest beneath my feet. I wish I still had that bedroom with the shelves surrounding me -- it was a sacrifice made to pursue writing, and the most painful sacrifice. Still, the books came with me, and we know that's what counts! (love Nancy Drew in the tub!) Thanks so much for your note, wonderful Jodi! -- ejc