One Advantage of Having a Bookcase in Your Office

Eleven years ago, when I discovered a child had chewed his way through My Antonia, I put away my books, the ones I accumulated during graduate school.  And I also got rid of the not-so-nice pine bookcases they were stored in.  I had lots & lots of books back then, and I did not want them to become a staple in that child’s diet or the diet of his brother, or of the brother to come.  

Last week, I installed the first ever BIG bookcase in my office, the place in our house where I write and I put a bunch of books into it.  

I have discovered a few things about bookcases, things I’d never have noticed if I hadn’t been away from them for a decade.  So I share one of them with you, because this is a blog, and that’s what you do when you have a blog.  

1.  When you have a bookcase, and your books are more or less organized in it, and you are writing a description of encroaching weather, in what you hope is a poetic passage, but not one that goes on so long that your reader slams the book down and picks up the closest magazine and gives up reading your novels forever because you suck so bad, and you think you need to read someone who does this well so you will have readers one day — well, you can just pull To The Lighthouse off the shelf and there it is, the great middle section “Time Passes” :

So with the house empty and the doors locked and the mattresses rolled round, those stray airs, advance guards of great armies, blustered in, brushed bare boards, nibbled and fanned, met nothing in bedroom or drawing-room that wholly resisted them but only hangings that flapped, wood that creaked, the bare legs of tables, saucepans and china already furred, tarnished, cracked. What people had shed and left—a pair of shoes, a shooting cap, some faded skirts and coats in wardrobes—those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated; how once hands were busy with hooks and buttons; how once the looking-glass had held a face; had held a world hollowed out in which a figure turned, a hand flashed, the door opened, in came children rushing and tumbling; and went out again. Now, day after day, light turned, like a flower reflected in water, its sharp image on the wall opposite. Only the shadows of the trees, flourishing in the wind, made obeisance on the wall, and for a moment darkened the pool in which light reflected itself; or birds, flying, made a soft spot flutter slowly across the bedroom floor.

And immediately before this passage, this amazing moment, a parenthetical that breaks your heart:  

[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]

There are other advantages to having bookcases, but I am so overwhelmed wtih the beauty of this piece that I cannot think of what they are.  How lucky am I, to have all these uneaten books to open up and read whenever I want? I feel like my life is entering a different phase, one of even more beauty than I thought possible.  Being without books for so many years, I’ve had to rely on my memory, and the library, and copies I bought when I could remember what I wanted to see again.  But now the books are coming back — all of them.  And that is the loveliest thing to happen in a while.

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21 thoughts on “One Advantage of Having a Bookcase in Your Office

  1. I love bookcases so much the sight of one has a palpable calming effect on me. I know exactly what you mean when you talk about feeling lucky; whenever I look at my own bedroom bookcase I feel blessed. I am so glad, Lily, that you’ve finally gotten everything together and accessible again – it’s one of the nicest things a bookish person can do for themself.

  2. How glorious to have your books to hand once again! In my office I’ve got three walls of books, and the fourth wall is mostly window. It’s a happy place.

  3. I can’t imagine how you managed so well all of this time, without passages like this. It’s so inspiring, I think I’ll go & write now…

  4. bookcases are AWESOME. and wow, thank you for those excerpts. amazing. have you read Love in the Time of Cholera? In there is a description of being newly widowed and sleeping in a bed that one has formerly shared but now is empty.

  5. Jade, I have read Love in the Time of Cholera. In fact, it is in a box waiting to go back on the shelf! I’ll look up that passage– it sounds beautiful. All I remember about that book is the moment when a character levitates after drinking hot chocolate, something I think about every time I drink hot chocolate.

    Debbie, It is beautiful, isn’t it? As for getting along without them, at least I didn’t have to witness the encroachment of hungry toddlers on my books.

    Dear Kate, Your office sounds wonderful! My law office is a good place, but it is filled mostly with the California Codes, binders from seminars, stacks of briefs (and Ella, of Box of Books’s Modern Library volumes, which I love).

    Ella, You have summed up my feeling exactly. xoxo

  6. Congratulations on the wonderful soul-fulfilling restoration of your books to a splendid new big bookcase!! It is a wonderful feeling. This past Feb I cleaned out my four floor to ceiling bookcases, reorganized, purged, etc., and now I can find whatever I need in less than two minutes. After thirty years in this house, it was a job that needed to be done. I also discovered long lost friends of books, and often sat right down to reread. Hmm, no wonder this project took nearly a month! There were also some sad moments, such as giving away The Inner Game of Tennis – I haven’t played in 20 years. But books are what nourish us all, and to have our own is just so important. Enjoy and breathe deeply in your home office.

  7. I haven’t read that novel for so long – quite devastating. I must confess to being a little haunted by how one of us may stand in that very place at some point in our lives. Our house is covered with bookcases, I’m afraid, and looking after books is the strictest lesson dudelet learned! (along with CDs). Randomly pulled down to start yesterday – Ivy Compton-Burnet, A House and its Head. It’s already devastating in quite a different way.

  8. Bookcases are a definite argument against the Kindle. I love the fact that I am surrounded by books while I am at work. The sign on my office door says “Pastor’s Study,”and I just now realized that if you remove the apostrophe the sign becomes a job description. Or wishful thinking.

    Viva la bookcase!

  9. I so understand this feeling, but your description makes me mourn all of the books (about 1200) I was forced to destroy (feeling sharp pangs as I type that) following a flood. There is little that we had to pitch that I miss, except for the books. So many times over the last 7 years I’ve thought, “it’s in that book”, and then I catch heart as it sinks when I realize that I don’t have it any more. I think this only accellerated my acquisition of books, though I don’t think that I’ll ever catch up to the volume that I once had. Maybe that is just as well. The book that I am wistfully wanting to pull from the shelves right now is St. Exupery’s The Little Prince, in French.

  10. Oh, how wonderful! I (sort of) know this feeling, because I remember what it was like to unpack the very last box of books after moving (which did take us months to do). However, that is NOTHING compared to having them all packed away for a decade. Enjoy! (Oh, and you’ve almost made me want to read To the Lighthouse again, but really, I’ve read that one three times already, and there are so many other books on my shelves begging for attention…)

  11. Your son is destined to be more literate than mine. He only chomped his way through my London A-Z! 🙂 And that is a very beautiful passage. That is the advantage and disadvantage of bookcases – they showcase the hundreds of possibly lovely passages one could be being inspired by, as opposed to getting anything else done….

  12. I’ve enjoyed roaming your site, and your mention of sensing a new phase of life resonated particularly.

    The first decades of my life were filled with books, reading, academic study and degree-achieving. (I spent my own time in Berkeley.)

    Then, things changed, as things do. I dispersed my libraries, sold the bookcases, waved good-bye to my profession, and began varnishing boats. For 20 years I traveled, sailed, worked, and traveled some more. I kept a few books which were dear to me, but essentially stopped reading.

    A year ago, I began blogging, and six months ago, I bought a new book for the first time in years. I don’t need a bookshelf yet, as my sixty (just counted!) volumes fit quite nicely onto their shelf. But my own new phase has been entered, and those lawyer’s bookcases my mother has might be just the ticket somewhere down the road!

  13. It’s daunting how much of To the Lighthouse happens in the parentheticals.

    For several years we had to store a large chunk of my books b/c of space issues. When we moved into this large apt. last summer, I got all my books back, and Oh! the utter richness of it. Hooray for you!

  14. Marie, I love the nerviness of that — the killing off of a son, a mother, a daughter all as the house goes to hell — it’s amazing she does it in these asides, and it actually works, probably because she is so confident that the natural world is the real power here, not death. Who knows if that’s why it works, but it does. (And yay for the utter richness of moving into a place with room for books.)

    Speaking of richness, my dear shoreacres, it sounds like your life is full of it — and your 60 books must be beloved indeed to have made the final cut.

    And your son, litlove, will be a navigator through the world’s greatest city. It’s in his system!

    Emily, I did so like hearing about your move, and your new house — which is not such a new to you house any more, is it?! Your books are home now.

    Oh Cam — Man. that is so hard. I didn’t know that happened to you. I’m so sorry. There are many things I’d be okay losing, but I’m not so sure how I’d feel about books.

    Op, You absolutely HAVE TO set a story in the stacks at Doe.

    Dear Ben, Whenever I read your comments I always think, really, why am I catholic? Whatever Ben is, that is the denomination for me — because there will always be something funny and profound coming out of the pastor’s study.

    U-Dad, you’re right. we may well be that person. All the more reason to love the right now.

    Dear Gail, I will! (The inner game of tennis — I hope that went to a deserving home. I like how our books chart our passions and our changes.)

  15. the other thing that is wonderful about bookcases, other than the books, is the little nooks and crannies in front of them or between them where you can stash things that otherwise might be gathering dust un-noticed. Instead, they are sitting (gathering dust, of course) right where you can enjoy them. In addition to all the books, my book cases have dragons, and wonderful stones picked up in various places in the world acting as bookends, and sundry other items to keep all those words grounded in and surrounded with reality.

  16. When I read that your child had “chewed his way” through My Antonia, I initially thought: Well, what an enterprising young man; that is indeed a large intellectual bite to process.

    Then I realized you meant, like, literally chewed.

    Then I had a good laugh.

  17. Help! Two men are coming tomorrow to relieve me of half my books, which I’m supposed to be packing away instead of reading your blog. It has taken me years to summon up the courage to do this. I pray that my nerve doesn’t fail me now!

  18. I’m coming a bit late to the conversation, but this entry is really lovely. I may have to go home and pick up my own copy of To the Lighthouse.

  19. Hi Jess and welcome! I’m glad to hear you’re about to pick up TTL — such a lovely book.

    Dear Joseph, Sometimes, we don’t NEED all those books, and sometimes they’re better off with other people. I hope your courage not only didn’t fail you, but allowed you to enjoy the freedom that comes with paring down.

    My dear Baron, I’m glad about the good laugh. xo

    Ms. HMH — Exactly. Here’s to nooks and crannies!

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