Wednesday, March 6, 2019

New House, New Shelves: Mary Vensel White’s Library

Reader:  Mary Vensel White
Location:  Southern California
Collection size:  750ish
The one book I’d run back into a burning building to rescue:  I wouldn’t run back into a burning building! As much as I love my books, most are replaceable, one way or another.
Favorite book from childhood:  A four-volume set of illustrated Disney stories
Guilty pleasure book:  Hm. I can’t think of anything in the book department I feel guilty for reading. I do watch a lot of bad television, however.

What I miss most about the house where I lived for almost eight years until this past August are the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves installed at the top of the stairs, in the landing area on the second floor. The space was blank when we bought the house, a perfect place for the shelves, which were white with mustard yellow backing that matched the nearby walls. My entire collection fit on these shelves, along with a column for children’s books (favorite picture books through the Young Adult novels my kids read before they stopped reading outside of school), yearbooks, assorted reference and coffee-table books, and rows of probably way too many photo albums. It wasn’t the first version of my library, but it was the most fully realized. I loved those shelves, loved having my books in one place with room to grow.

I started collecting books as a student. I kept everything: novels and non-fiction but also textbooks, anthologies, dictionaries. Every time I moved—seven times in three states—I faithfully boxed, stacked and unpacked them. There were various arrangements for books in the various homes. Several portable bookshelves followed along from place to place.

The first major culling of the collection happened when my children were very small. I decided to build a three-piece bookshelf from a Home Depot kit for the condo we had just purchased and renovated. While the babies slept, I assembled and painted this thing in the garage: white, with a wine-colored background (I’ve always been a fan of the colorful background). And when it came time to unbox the majority of the library that had been stored since the move, I ended up donating about forty percent of the books. I decided that moving forward, I would only keep books I believed I’d have occasion to re-read or reference in the future, or books I loved, either rationally or irrationally. Most of the school-related books went, also, novels for which my feelings were anything less than deep affection or admiration.

Four more moves in about six more years, and the books came along. Of course, the collection grew, even under the new rules for keeping. One house had a built-in office with two tall shelves; another had shelves in the family room. And then, we found the house where I thought I’d be for a very long time. Maybe, for good.

When I moved to this new place last year, it required another reshaping of the collection. Books of my soon-to-be ex-husband’s that had been part of the library for over two decades were boxed and sent his way. In some cases, ownership wasn’t entirely clear but because I was doing all of the labor, I used my best judgement and perhaps took some liberties.

Two weeks before I moved to this home, my home, I got the keys and began slowly moving things over. First on the list: the library. I took many bags to Goodwill. I packed up books that had been on my To Read pile for much too long. I got rid of books for which my affection had waned over the years. I moved box after box to the new house, lined the books up along the walls of my bright, spacious bedroom. And on a sunny day, I paid an installer to put together three new shelves—two for the landing at the top of this second floor, one for the crowded but cozy corner of my bedroom which serves as my office.

This library is a pared-down, leaner, much less concentrated and more mobile version of its former self. On the landing are mostly novels and just two shelves for children’s books from middle grade to present. The picture books and most of the photo albums are stacked in plastic bins in the garage, no room for them here. Next to my desk are literary theory and poetry, spiritual books, history and biography, books on writing, miscellaneous others. My new, smaller To Read pile is probably still too unwieldy.

Downstairs, a glass-enclosed bookshelf houses the coffee table books and a series about art that belonged to my mother. Also, that Disney set from childhood. On this home’s only built-in shelves, above a desk set off from the living room, you’ll find anthologies and collections, leather-bound classics I also brought from my mother’s house when we cleared out her library after she passed last year.

It occurs to me that my library, in its current incarnation, is a spread-out, breathing, but non-permanent thing. I think about a scene from my favorite movie, Moonstruck, when Loretta’s father says the pinky ring her fiancé has given her looks stupid. She says “It’s temporary!” and he fires back “Everything is temporary!” But I like the feeling of having my books settled into places, even if it’s several places, even if perhaps this newest arrangement is also quite temporary. The books are not. They have been with me through everything. They live on their shelves and in me, no matter where we find ourselves next.

Mary Vensel White is a graduate of the University of Denver and DePaul University. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, The Rumpus, The Wisconsin Review, Author Magazine, and other places, and she is a contributing editor at, and owner of Her debut novel, The Qualities of Wood, was the first book published under HarperCollins’ Authonomy imprint. Her second novel, Bellflower, was published this year. Here’s what Deborah Reed, author of The Days When Birds Come Back, had to say about Bellflower: “A small gem of a novel, each vignette comes as a surprise, and each is a testament to how, just like in life, everything is woven and fused and pulling toward the other.” Mary Vensel White lives in southern California with her four children. Click here to visit 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.

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