Thursday, November 8, 2018

When Books Go MIH (Missing in House): One Writer’s Library

Reader:  Lisa Romeo
Location:  Cedar Grove, NJ
Collection Size:  About 1,400
The one book I’d run back into a burning building to rescue:  A fill-in-yourself cookbook of my recipes—because it carries an inscription: “To my daughter, who turned out to be a terrific cook!” This surprised Mom because as she always admitted, she was not a good cook.
Favorite book from childhood:  Every single one that featured a horse. I’ll have to go with National Velvet.
Guilty pleasure book:  Books I only discover after falling in love with the film or TV series the books inspired. Currently, the Call the Midwife memoir trilogy.

I ordered more bookcases last week when I caught myself doing what I vowed I’d never do: piling books on the wing chair I’d confiscated from the living room, claiming I needed a reading chair in my home office. The chair now resembles the basement treadmill—sturdy and parked in a fine spot but rendered useless by its transformation into a holder of stuff. In the chair’s case, it’s books purchased in the past few weeks or those I’d pulled from the shelf for some worthy reason, but when I went to return them to their rightful spot, the spot was gone, overtaken by other books.

I looked around. The chair wasn’t the only warning sign that my home library needed attention.

Piled on a card table were books about fathers and daughters, grief, and death rituals— books I’d read or skimmed last year while writing and revising my recently published memoir, Starting With Goodbye, and/or while writing more about those topics for book publicity months ago. Huh. Thought I’d re-shelved them. The card table itself had been hastily erected as a place to stash other books I’d assigned my online MFA students months ago and needed handy, then promptly forgotten I’d pulled from shelves. Later, I’d go to the appropriate spot, move my index finger along to find one, alphabetically, where it should have been.

Then our son called from college during his first week—as instructed because surely most of the books assigned in his 20th Century American Literature class were on my shelves, saving us both a wad of cash. Instead, I discovered the stash of classics I absolutely know I had somewhere, were apparently elsewhere.

Books are often MIH. Missing, but In the House. Somewhere.

For someone with nearly 100 linear feet of book shelf space, it probably shouldn’t be this way.

Six years ago, the home office/library of my dreams took shape. I did the imagining, my dear husband did the work: painting the walls red, the window trim and door white; measuring, then assembling eight black bookcases; moving a white-and-butcher-block glass-fronted cabinet up from the kitchen. I dislike desks so we floated a black wood dining table in the center of the room so every bit of wall space could be given over to books.

I drafted one son and for two days we organized, alphabetized, and shelved some 1,000 books. All the novels together, followed by short story collections. Then the narrative nonfiction, memoirs, and essay collections by a single author. A separate slim bookcase was devoted to essay anthologies. In the white cabinet: two shelves for poetry, three for books on writing craft, one for language and style reference. Finally, there were two shelves for stuff I’d written myself (before my book), that appeared between physical covers, plus books by editing clients.

Back then, there were empty spaces at the end of many shelves which I filled with mementos, travel trinkets, photos, and Mom’s Waterford candy jars filled with shells and pretty rocks.

It seemed like enough space. So much space, after 23 years working in that same home office with drab hand-me-down, beige office shelving designed to hold anything but books.

It wasn’t enough space.

Slowly, the bits of art and ephemera gave way to newly-acquired books. When all the linear space was full, I began laying books horizontally on top of standing books, then eventually, sadly, stacking books in front of other books. Mind you, each time I get to the end of a 10-week writing class I teach four times a year, I cull the collection, yanking out a dozen books to give away to students. It doesn’t help much.

From where I sit writing in my home office, I watch the light traffic on my suburban street. Recently I tried to think of a week when the UPS van didn’t stop to drop off books, or I didn’t arrive home from a conference, bookstore appearance, or book festival without an armful. No such week existed in my memory. (Some weeks, no such day exists.)

I haven’t even mentioned the bookcases in the breakfast nook holding cookbooks, the one in the living room stacked with travel and local history. Or the baskets in two bathrooms holding trivia and joke books. Or the shelves in the basement where my sons stack books they want to be rid of, awaiting my sorting into bags for the hospice shop, friends with younger children, and book drives.

My fiction shelves are mostly well-behaved; novels rarely go MIH. I read only one novel at a time and return it to its place according to the author’s last name within days. Poetry books and writing craft books don’t generally go missing either but if they did, I wouldn’t realize it right away since I don’t impose alphabetical shelving there. When I want to read a particular poem again, I likely have a vivid memory of the book’s cover and search that way. Craft and writing reference books seem to self-sort into most-consulted at one end of the shelf, and infrequently-thumbed at the other.

What I’m challenged by are the 27 shelves, always full, overflowing, haphazard, holding nonfiction prose, shelves that begin alphabetically but devolve into chaos. I tend to read—or skim, study, search through—about six different nonfiction books at a time. They could be anywhere—in the pool bag, on my night table, in the car, under a pillow on the family room couch. Shelved in the wrong place. I blame not having my glasses handy, ever. Or if I’m tired, I might re-shelve P after R. Put a single-author essay collection on the anthology shelf, drop a memoir by a multi-genre author alongside her novels.

The nonfiction shelves are where at 3:00 a.m. I once decided to reposition some physical shelves, pulled out about 300 books, judged wrong about shelf height, and so now some books are (horrors!) shelved horizontally. It’s where gaps might mean the book is in a pile meant for research or teaching. The nonfiction shelves are also where I’m perplexed by a “missing” title until I realize I meant to buy it, thought I bought it, but didn’t (yet) buy it.

I did find all the classic novels that my college son called about (okay, two weeks too late), neatly stacked (though behind several trophies) in a bookcase in the elder son’s room, where of course I’d suggested he keep them until his brother needed them. Shouldn’t they be back in my office? Of course. Alas, where to put them and the 50-odd other currently shelf-less books?

First, I consult my husband, whose regular job demands he organize a sizable wholesale warehouse for maximum storage and efficiency. How, dear, can we cram in more shelves, more books? He pulls out the measuring tape and yes, we can squeeze one of the narrowest, tallest bookshelves between the window and the closet door, and another next to the wing chair.

But honey, he said ever so gently, you don’t really have a bookshelf problem. You have a book-buying problem.

How could I explain? I don’t have a book-buying problem. I have a library.

Lisa Romeo is the author of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss (University of Nevada Press). Her short work is listed in Best American Essays 2018 and 2016, and has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Longreads, Brevity, Under the Gum Tree, and many other places. Lisa teaches with the Bay Path University MFA program and earned her MFA from Stonecoast. Connect on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or at her website.

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. Funny! You give the term "home library" new meaning. And even in this digital age, there is something magical about a hardcopy book. So let's just love magical stuff! :-)

  2. My library very closely resembles yours! I have a novel, a first and favourite romance novel from when I was a teenager just discovering such things. I discovered the book it in a little out-of-the-way used bookshop. And now I CAN'T FIND IT! I looked. And looked. Sorted and put away. (Because everyone knows, "If you clean up. It'll show up!") And no luck. Did it perhaps find its way to your library? It's called Winterwood. And it was my very first romance! Sigh.

    1. Sorry, Diane, I don't see it here...but of course that doesn't mean it's NOT here either! Have you tried Bookmooch? Someone out there might have a copy to send you! I get a bunch of hard-to-find books that way.

  3. I tried to rearrange my books a while back, but when I noticed some books missing I gave up. Better to not know they're missing than to have it confirmed!

    1. I suppose that's true too! My mental book inventory rarely matches the shelves...

  4. So interesting. One of the most gut-wrenching parts of paring down our house as we prepared to sell/downsize was dealing with all the books.

    1. Oh no, I don't even want to think about that future task!