Tin House: Blog Post for The Open Bar

Tin House: The Open Bar Blog

Correspondent’s Course: The New Old Library
By  Thstaff  | November 15th, 2011 – 12:30 pm   Click here to read entire post

Not surprisingly, The Open Bar receives a lot of book recommendations throughout the year. Colleagues, relatives, the gentleman who goes through our recycling, they all have suggestions. Some are good. Most are bad. If there is one taste-maker we have come to count on though, it would have to be the kind librarian down the street who sorts through the stacks on Monday mornings. Despite her tendency for making the odd conversational segue (Anne Carson=the rising cost of Swiffers?), the woman has great taste in books, especially short story collections. We can’t thank her enough for introducing us to Melinda Moustakis’ excellent debut, Bear Down, Bear North, which won the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award. And while we haven’t checked in with her yet, we have a feeling that our librarian friend would strongly agree with Melinda’s choices and criteria for filling an empty bookshelf.

Books equal love. This is something I knew I had figured out when I was a child when I watched Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Forget roses and castles and ballrooms. Beast builds Belle a library outfitted with built-in ladders and endless shelves of books. There, I thought. And much later, There is the definition of this abstract emotion for which I have no words.

And this past summer, heartbreak. All because of books. For a cross-country move from Michigan to Washington State, I shipped almost all of my books through the mail. Perhaps I didn’t tape the boxes properly. Perhaps they were too heavy and had to implode. For whatever reason, four of my eight boxes of books never arrived. I now have large gaping holes in my bookshelves. “Don’t judge me,” a friend of mine will say when you go to her apartment and peruse her shelves of perfectly alphabetized books.  Such an intimate peek into someone’s world when you look at their book collection—the colorful display and gloss of many hours lost in words. My books have their own messy system, groupings by theme or genre or classes I’ve taken—here are the Russians, here is poetry, here are short story collections, here is needle and thread, here are shoeboxes of postcards, here are the cribbage boards.

Now I say, Here is what’s left. At first the bareness of the shelves overwhelmed me and I felt as if I had lost large pieces of my life. Where are my Alaska books? Or, I want to use a certain story for teaching and realize I no longer own the story or the book it was in. It’s as if my shelves have rearranged, and consequently, my brain has been rearranged. Maybe this was needed. So I am currently and purposefully buying new books, books I’ve always wanted to read, books I am embarrassed to admit I haven’t read yet, books that will have new conversations and osmoses and earthquakes with the books on my shelves and the ghosts of books that used to be on my shelves.  But there will always be those books I love and return to again when I need to hear a familiar voice, books that shaped me as a writer. Here are some of them:


Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

I own the British first edition of this book published in 1945, a fragile, slim yellow hardcover that was a Christmas gift from my parents after I told them it was my favorite novel. That one is for show. Before the move, I also used to own a cheap paperback version that contained tabs and notes. I measure a book’s impact by how it irrevocably changes an image or word or impression for me. Often, in those early hours of the day, I think of this book and say to myself, “this is the pearl of morning.” There may not be a better phrase to describe that quiet stillness…. (Click here to read the rest)

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