Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Books of Many Colors

Just one of the bookcases in our dining room

While waiting for the kettle to boil the other day, I began idly counting the books in one of our bookcases. A couple of minutes later after scribbling some sums on the grocery list pad, I’d calculated that we probably have around 2,000 books in our house.
That’s not very many compared with the 33 million in the Library of Congress, the 14 million in the British Library, or the 11 million in the Bodleian at Oxford University. But for a modest 3-bedroom colonial, it’s a lot.
There are 3½ full-length IKEA bookcases in our dining room as well as a nifty built-in shelf that runs the length of the room at just below ceiling height, which alone holds – I reckon – 80 paperbacks. There’s another full-length bookcase in the living room and one at the top of the stairs, plus one and a half in my office that are groaning under the weight of books about Tahiti and 20th-century British and European history. This is not to mention the contents of several smaller book shelves in the spare room and the basement.
We could probably cull fifty to a hundred and never miss them, but I’m not in any hurry to try.
How many of these have I read? I really couldn’t say. Maybe half? Or less? Which means that I have a host of literary treasures at my disposal, ready and waiting to be discovered. Having so many books on the premises means that, when I get into a reading frenzy on some subject or author, I can usually satisfy my cravings just by going to my own shelves. For example, to fill a gap in my reading of the classics, I recently embarked on a tour through the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson. I began with The Master of Ballantrae because he wrote it in Tahiti in 1888 while staying with Tati Salmon. (Tati described RLS sitting up in bed in the Salmon house in Papara scribbling furiously on a pad on his knees.) I knew that, when I finished it, I had copies of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Treasure Island, and Kidnapped right here under my roof whenever I was ready for them.  
Also, on those rare occasions when I’m at a loss as to what to read next, I can browse my stacks and remind myself that we have copies of, say, Slaughterhouse Five or The Tin Drum or The Old Man and the Sea.
I have often been teased for organizing my books by the color of their spines. But that is how I remember them. The other day a friend asked me if I had a copy of Midnight’s Children that she could borrow. I knew I did – and remembered it as a Penguin trade paperback with a white and orange spine and was able to go straight to the right shelf and found it wedged between Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood and The Stories of Colette – in the same color combo. It’s a weird unconscious mnemonic device of mine – my own instinctive Dewey Decimal system. Thank god I have it or I’d never find anything I was looking for.
Clearly it would make more sense to cram our 2,000 books onto an e-reader, but where would be the fun in that? Our house is an embodiment of Anthony Powell’s 1971 novel titled Books Do Furnish a Room, and to me the sight of a neat row of matching orange, blue, or green spines is a real aesthetic pleasure. In these gray times, it is good to have as much color in our homes and in our world as we can find.

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