Wednesday 21 November 2012

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

A few days ago I had a small dinner party to celebrate my birthday. In preparation for the event, I tidied up the lounge and sorted out one of the bookcases in the room. I have to admit that the majority of volumes on two of the three bursting shelves belong to me and my wife has repeatedly asked me to either limit my book purchasing habit or donate some to a charity or a second-hand bookshop. I refuse to do either. My only recent compromise was not to get Zadie Smith’s  latest novel. NW will have to wait for a little while… maybe until Christmas.

Whilst I was waiting for my guests to arrive and the food was simmering slowly (I made red kidney bean soup with a vegetarian option that included carrots and sweet potatoes and a meat one with diced pork and beef) I looked around the lounge to make sure that the place was tidy and clean. It was then that my eyes alighted on the middle shelf of the small bookcase. I scanned the titles on display and I came to the sudden realisation that I had, unconsciously, mind, “tarted up” this reading corner. I had committed the ultimate sin: I had “sexed up” my mini-library. In swapping books from the (equally small) bookcase upstairs to the one downstairs, I had ended up with the more interesting and intellectual-looking ones on the ground floor and left the less exciting ones on the first floor. Vanity had finally got the better of me.

Or had it? Was I really being vain?

It’s a habit of mine, which I have had for many, many years, even stretching back to when I still used to live in Cuba that, whenever I visit someone’s house, I must also pay a visit to their bookshelves, if they have any. I also check out their CD collection if it’s in full view, but that’s another column. I can literally spend hours looking at the literary choices of my hosts.

A person’s bookcase says a lot about his or her personality. I’m not only referring to the genres they opt for, but also to the state of their reading material. Each book tells a story of use, re-use and in some cases, misuse (even abuse. But let’s not go there!). Sometimes my host(ess) satiates my curiosity with an anecdote on this or that volume and how it made him/her feel at the time. New authors have been recommended via another person’s mini-library. What I do have noticed is that very rarely are the books on display uninteresting or dull. They’re usually well-known pieces and as conversation ice-breakers, priceless.

So, with these thoughts in mind I wondered if others spruced up their books display as I had, apparently, done. Do you, dear reader/blogger, arrange your poetry, non-fiction and fiction material in a way that looks more eye-catching? I am aware that in the old days reading rooms were… well, just that, reading rooms. A whole section in the house would be devoted to this literary sanctuary. There was no need to “tart up” anything. What you saw was what you got. Brown leather-bound books in glass cages were the only species in this literary zoo. But I doubt that in modern times people have such lofty ambitions. For starters, there’s the practical: lack of space. And, number two, there’re the priorities we have nowadays. I guess that some people would sooner turn an empty space into a gym with state-of-the-art treadmill, than a shrine to the likes of Zola and Hurston.

Nevertheless, the more I thought about the way I had “prettied up” my bookcase (not that it was ugly to begin with; it was just very, very messy) the more I realised that the truth lay elsewhere. And it did, indeed. A few days before my dinner party I had been mulling over a - now defunct - column that used to come out in the Saturday Guardian’s Review supplement. It was called Writers’ Rooms and it could be found regularly on page five where the My Hero section is located these days. I found Writers’ Rooms a beautiful and warm read. In a few hundred words, authors (poets, short-story writers and essayists, amongst others) let us in on the secret to their magic. Because there’s no doubt that that place where you churn out word after word like a blacksmith taming the rough iron, is a magical place. Writers also showed us the mess, the reigning chaos in which they work (for instance, Marina Warner), or, in some cases, the pulchritude and wide space they needed (Joan Bakewell). Above all, I marvelled at the different notions of what a writer’s room is or represents. Simon Callow hasn’t got one since he’s always on the move. I would have thought that, if there were to be someone sticking up for the grand reading room as it used to be back in the day, Mr Callow would be its most prominent exponent.

When reading Writers’ Rooms, I remember scanning the photos of the authors’ work spaces for clues as to their source(s) of inspiration. And that’s probably one of the reasons why I ended “sexing up” my own bookcase. Not in an attempt to become a writer by osmosis (writing might have once been an aspiration I had but that goal is fading further and further away from me it as time goes on) but because I wanted to keep my sources of inspiration closer to me. The Kleins, Joyces, Piñeras and Mantels are the reason why I continue to read. Literature has never ceased to amaze me. And I don’t think it ever will. So, it wasn't vanity after all, but advertisement. I was advertising the power of reading (and good writing) to unlock the creative inner self.

© 2012
Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be posted on Sunday 25th November at 10am (GMT)

The "sexed-up" shelf


  1. Well, I certainly have some books that I keep upstairs where very few people can see them! Can't tell you what they are... that would make hiding them pointless...

    Interested to know what you make of "NW" when you read it. I found it a bit frustrating in some ways... though I would always support a writer's right to develop and try new things...


  2. i love looking at other peoples helps me fill my own...smiles..had a guy once that looked over my titles and said he understood me completely...i am kinda concerned at what he must have thought as he never explained...and never came my books are in the basement so i am not sure what the means either...ha...i love books though...

    happy belated birthday!

  3. hey, Cubano, enjoyed the visit. keepin' it short 'cause
    (not your holiday, but "Japi San Guivi" nonetheless) here
    in New York we're celebrating that great American pigout called
    Thanksgiving when families gather to tear up a big bird and in the process
    engage in embarrassing dysfunction. gotta make it snappy.

    but before i run, your sexy shelf. a bit outta my league as i lean more towards
    graphic storytelling (aka comic-books, four colors and a dream). but, that's not entirely true, i DO SO love reading. cookbooks in the kitchen, joke-books by the
    porcelain throne, Hardcover Graphic Novels side by side with collectible hard-covered classics on shelves, paperback mystery novels, summer readers, a Castilian corner, and books that i'll get to one day, galore. piles of books that i'll get to one day,everywhere. not good.

    a hoarder's hell.

    back to your shelf, your "Shelfari" shelf lead me to pick-up the Cabrera book and though the type is horrid and the prose dry, i found it to be a fascinating read nonetheless. which leads me to your "sexy" shelf and the inclusion of Hernandez' LOS ORICHAS EN AFRICA" and i'll take that as a recommendation.

    some of the books i've read, most i'm not familiar with at all. two by Virgilio Pin(i)era makes me curious. Munros' TOO MUCH HAPPINESS and Klein's NO LOGO have been dropping to the bottom of my "read next" pile for sometime, so i may just dive in.

    and ULYSSES? at least once a year i attempt to get past the first few pages and fail. next attempt i'll try strapping myself into the reading chair.

    i never "dress up my shelves for company, too much effort, not much payoff. i DO, however, under the right circumstances pull out my "hollow" book and share my stash VERY impressive to some folk.

    gotta run now, brother, thank you once more for sharing, see you soon on one of your Sunday java jives. thanks again for the post.


  4. Ha! Yes, I could relate to pretty much all of that. I am constantly being asked if I haven't got too many books. "Too many" is still undefined, so I can ignore that, but tidying up is a forever option - if it's only making sure they all stand up and the spines are in line. Upstairs is for paperbacks and tired books that have to lie down - so what thin you of that?

  5. I love books...and if I could I would fill my house with them.. :) I do have many books and I do enjoy looking over what people are reading when I visit their home. :)

  6. I have several large bookcases in what we call our library room which is a small room on the far end of our house. It is overflowing and I have thinned it out, but find that what I have (which I'm sure my spouse sees as too much) is at a point of 'essentials'. I would say that literature is not the predominant genre. But, it is a very eclectic collection!

  7. hey..happy belated birthday...i love looking at other's bookshelves - my own is quite messy and i should really take the time and sort it..ha... i don't buy many books though...mostly borrow them at the library and bring them back after reading, otherwise i may wouldn't manage to find a free space at my house...smiles

  8. Many thanks for your lovely comments.

    I usually get money for my birthday from my father-in-law and I immediately head for's marketplace to get some secondhand books. But not this year, no, I have promised myself to finish reading all the books on my shelf before buying new ones.

    Still, I want to get that Zadie Smith and Rachel I'll let you know how I get on. :-)

    Greetings from London.

  9. I love books, anywhere and yes, if I am in a home where books are on display I would ask to take a peek at their titles. Could spend all day every day in book stores old and new and new be bored.
    Enjoyed this, thank you.

  10. Very harm in making a bookshelf look pleasing to the eye? As a designer...I find that the colors and sizes of the books are equally important. I have to admit my art books are the first ones that people see...I have a bit of a fetish with those!

    A thought to ponder...(for I LOVE books and bookshelves!) What do people display when they have a Kindle, Nook, or iPad to read and collect their books on? No fun at all I say! Can't very well go making your collection look sexy for guests now can you?!!

  11. This is a very cool idea. I am pretty good at working in a lot of weird spaces, but sometimes I know I'd do better if I made things around my workspace better. k.

  12. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Summer Kitchen Girls, I'd never thought of e-readers! I gues they just change the font size and colour. :-)

    Greetings from London.

  13. As I finish reading you, I caught myself looking at your books with my head bent down so as to gossip and see what you read. I'm still laughing. My books are arranged according to their subject, cover and size. The language books are on the lower shelf, on the upper shelves I keep the,novels. All separated by language and in order of size. The dictionaries, hard cover books including The Anthologies of American Stories we had to read at the Uni are kept on the upper shelf. Many of my books have been presents, so I read what other people pick for me. I'm luckky their taste doesn't differ much from mine otherwise... One thing I miss is the Cuban literature I haven't got anything Cuban.

  14. Mine is more DVDs for all to see, but yeah whether movie or book, I sure scan away and give a look.

  15. Happy Happy Birthday!

    Yours for books anyway they come . . .

  16. I love looking at other people's bookshelves too. My own shelves line the study and living room and are overflowingly messy.

    More recently,however, my trusty Kindle contains about 100 recent book buys! Two recent buys being the Hilary Mantel books.

  17. Books are one of my great loves too.
    You'll find them just about everywhere in my house. The book case is crammed to capacity; they're under the sofa and chairs, in the kitchen, in the bedroom etc.
    And the ones too personal to go on display are hidden in various places I hope no one will find them!!!

    However, there is one truly inspiring one I carry everywhere with me in my handbag. I couldn't ever imagine going anywhere without it - that would be like going out naked!
    And I guess you're thinking of securing me in a strait-jacket by now lol :D

  18. I love looking at other people's bookshelves but have to watch myself so as not to seem too much the busy body. I am afraid that my whole apartment is lined with bookshelves - that and art are my most satisfying pleasures. My "sexy" shelf is in my bedroom but it's not very "sexy" by most standards as it's mostly poetry, some long loved novels and biography.

  19. Many thanks for your comments.

    Bare-eyed, I forgot to reply to you last time. Believe me, stick with Ulysses, man, you won't regret it. I started it twice and twice I put it down. Until I grabbed it the third time and didn't let go. It's not a book just to be read, but also to be felt! :-)

    Greetings from London.

  20. Feliz Cumpleanos and oh the way Scorpio's mind works! I totally agree, you can tell everything from a music and book collection. It never occurs to me to rearrange anything because I like to arrange my CDs and books in sections where I can easily locate them. Zadie Smith's latest is on my buy for later list as well although I don't know what possessed your wife to suggest that you part with any of the books you already own. That's like asking to part with some of your old friends. I have a book similar to Writers Room called Unpacking the Library: Writers and Their Books. It show the bookcases of writers with a little blurb from them about their influences and it is sexy indeed!

  21. Happy belated birthday, Cuban. You didn't mention dessert - did you make that too?

    I have chided MFB for filling the most visible bookcase in our house with books he inherited but hasn't actually read. They look nice, but I don't see the point in having them there. I tend not to hang onto fiction unless particularly good, but reference books are another story. I do enjoy looking at other people's collections of books and was most frustrated when we stayed in someone's Stockholm apartment with tons of books, most of which I could neither read nor even figure out what they were about!

  22. I gave 99% of my books away years ago. I'm surprised at how many book "ideas" & even sentences that I can retrieve the memory of. That will do. I have kept books that were special gifts from good friends, but I do not miss the rest any longer. Funnily enough, I used to collect rare books so changes.

    A VERY belated happy birthday.



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