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.