Our Reading Lives

Bookshelf Revisit: What’s on Your Bookshelf, and Why?

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On the podcast Literary Disco, the hosts do this thing they call bookshelf revisit. Each of the three hosts picks a book from their personal bookshelf and talks about it. Listening to the podcast’s hosts talk about their personal collections got me thinking about the books on my shelves. When books first come in my home they go into the unread pile in the corner of my living room. After reading a book, I decide whether to keep it (in which case I add it to my catalog and find a place for it to live) or discard it. I have limited space, so keeping a book involves a conscious decision.

One section of my bookshelves is dedicated to books that belonged to my grandmother. My Nana is one of the few adults I recall seeing reading regularly when I was kid. She had a small library comprised of classics like Dickens and Dumas, poetry, and what I’m guessing were romances. I haven’t read all of Nana’s books yet. Maybe one day I’ll read them, maybe not. No matter what they will always have a place on my shelves, no matter how many times I move apartments or cities.

All of the other books on my shelf I read, and for reasons, kept them. The question I ask myself is why I kept them after reading them.

Reading for Self-Education and Improvement

Revisiting my shelves reminded me how much efforts toward self-education and improvement have motivated my reading. According to my reading journal, at age 23 I made a list of (coincidentally) 23 authors I thought I needed to read to be considered well-read and properly educated. This would not be the last time I would make such a list. Zora Neale Hurston, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright were some of the names on the list. Even though I kind of cringe at my motivations now, I’m grateful for my self-education and improvement streak. Some of those authors and books became favorites. Moby-Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo, and For Whom the Bell Tolls fall into this category. They sit at eye level on my bookshelves where I can always see them.

My self-education and improvement comes in nonfiction flavors too. Instead of an author it will be a time period, a person, or an event that gets in my head. It takes reading a bunch of my books about the topic before I can think about something else. Often the topic is something I didn’t learn much about (or at all) in school, like the Black Panthers, feminism, or Supreme Court history. This is how Revolutionary Suicide, Backlash: America’s Undeclared War Against American Women, and Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren made their way onto my shelves. Each of these books made me think about the world and my place in it a little differently. So of course, I kept them.

Aspiring to Completion

I’m a completionist, or at least I aspire to be. Some authors grab and take hold in one book, compelling me to read everything they wrote. I can’t remember if it was A Farewell to Arms or For Whom the Bell Tolls that crossed my path first but whichever it was led to my attempt to read everything Ernest Hemingway wrote. Same with Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens, and Rex Stout. Even if I don’t like every book a favorite author has written (many might disagree but A Tale of Two Cities is not Dickens’ best work), I can’t break up a set.

Honestly, the Movie Was Pretty Good, So Good It Made Me Read the Book

Some books I kept because they reminded me of my childhood, but I’m not referring to children’s books. I was what used to be called latch key kid. This more or less means I spent many afternoons at home alone waiting for my parents to get home from work. A significant amount of those afternoons involved watching movies. With no one home I could watch pretty much anything I wanted. Soap operas, talk shows, and game shows didn’t interest me much. I loved cartoons but they are repetitive, so it was movies.

When I see a really great movie I wish it was based on a book. Then I would be able to experience the story again, only differently. Truth be told, movies introduced me to many of my favorite authors. I first learned of Margaret Atwood by watching the 1990 film The Handmaid’s Tale. John Irving’s stories first came to me in the form of the film versions of The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire. Thank goodness for the PBS Masterpiece Mystery series. That’s where I discovered An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and P.D. James, one my all time favorite mystery writers. So these books live on my shelves partly because I liked them, but also because they remind me of lazy afternoons spent watching movies.

Beautiful Blue, Cheerleaders, and Poetry

Some books I remember vividly. Often times it is story, but sometimes is something else entirely. The image of a woman in the cornflower blue skirt with the orange-red hair against a blue background was why I bought and kept Paulo Coelho’s The Witch of Portobello. I loved the story, but even if I hadn’t, I would have kept the book anyway. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but this cover is so striking it is worth having for that reason alone.

Megan Abbott’s Dare Me left me breathless. I picked it up expecting a quick read about mean girl cheerleaders and instead got a noir mystery about female ambition and friendships. I don’t remember where or when I bought this, but know it sat in the unread pile for a while. When I finally read it I thought, this is the author I’ve been waiting for all my life.

After college I pretty much stopped ready poetry, mostly because it seemed like the kind of writing that benefits, if not requires, a classroom discussion. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes made me think that perhaps I could read poetry on my own. There are funny poems about men and women next to poems about not making rent and intense poems about being Black in America. I still find poetry more difficult than other types of reading but this book reminds me that poetry doesn’t have to impossible to understand.

So what’s on your shelf and why? What made you decide to keep those books rather than giving them away? What do they reveal about your life and reading past? I’d love to know.