Books I Haven't Read
Updated: Feb 14, 2019
Without turning a page, without reading a word, there are books on my library’s shelves that speak volumes to me. My bookshelves, full of fiction, non-fiction, a smattering of poetry, some history, a bit of humor, and countless biographies and memoirs of people I long to know better, take up one entire wall in my cavernous living room. The coffee table is appropriately stacked with coffee table books, mostly with grand pictures of art masterpieces. Without my books, the room would have no character.
Arranging, rearranging, and reading books is my great joy. A serene sense of peace washes over me on days when I have all the time in the world to get lost in reading a book. I spent the day after Christmas devouring Susan Orleans’s The Library. In it, she reminded me of how books feel like a thing alive both now and on a continuum. First in the author’s mind, then as “a lifeline that continues as someone sits with it and marvels over it, and it continues on, time after time after time.”
Many of my books remind of places I’ve been or want to visit. Some inform as text books even in this Google age. Many of my books are on vital, return-to subjects which is why I keep them close at hand.
Some amuse. I walk to the books in my collection this evening at twilight and use my index finger and thumb to ease one of my most treasured books off the tightly packed shelf. I have read my father’s copy of Blackie Sherrod’s Scattershooting many times. Sherrod’s tales of sports, Dallas, and Texas take me home with humor. In my mind, I see my dad reading passages from the book aloud with tears of laughter running down his cheeks. Old-fashioned, down-home wisecracks. “Our neighbor Jones sez going to a party with his old lady is like fishing with the game warden.”
The book cover remarks, “Sherrod has left an unmistakable mark on sports writing."
“Like chickenpox,” Sherrod retorted.
Simpler times. I loved my father in those simpler times.
As I scan more titles, I run my fingertips over colorful spines. My books are arranged—some by author, others by subject, art mainly—Leonardo da Vinci, Women of Abstract Expressionism, The Art of Wealth, Love, A Celebration in Art and Literature. My mind hums with memories just perusing the titles.
Recently, after removing a Christmas decoration, I placed a worn copy of James Michener’s Texas upright near a succulent plant on my book shelf directly in my line of sight from my favorite chair. The five-letter title, bold block letters in white, conjures up my youth, my ‘rearin up.’ I love the vastness of the state and the lively, loyal characters there. Oil brought my family to Texas.
Close by, I see Spindletop’s fiery orange cover with a pitch dark image of the legendary epic gusher. The excitement of my Texas upbringing resurfaces. Again, I see my father, this time as an eager young roustabout, his apprenticeship in the world of black gold. Looking at Spindletop, given to Dad in 1949, reminds me of the charmed life afforded me by my father’s long and successful career in the oil business.
An unembellished umber colored book catches my eye next. Titled Libros De Temas Castellanos, it’s my beautiful mother’s Spanish text book from her University of Denver college days in the early 1930s. I open the edition to the inside cover page. My youthful mom, forever the glamour girl, sketched a profile of a young woman, perhaps a self-portrait, her hair styled with long soft waves, gazing into an oval hand mirror. An insight into Mom, the popular coed. I smile, pondering how much Spanish she mastered.
There are seven Bibles on the book shelves in my home. I’m not a student of the Bible; I don’t read these Bibles. I cherish them, though, for what they meant to people I love; for the hands that cradled them in decades past. One Bible reminds me of my mother-in-law, sweet Mabel the Nazarene, who read, re-read and memorized every verse. I wince momentarily at a white Bible, its cover pearlized. My bridal bouquet rested on it when I walked down the aisle in my first wedding. My aunt’s Bible has her name, Dr. Mariana Gardner, inscribed in gold on the cover. Inside, the pastor wrote “for good teaching in our Sunday School.” My aunt, the pediatrician, had no children of her own, but cared for so many in all aspects of their lives. In between the delicate scritta pages of my grandparents’ Bible, I have tucked their obituaries.
I turn to another shelf where I see my maternal grandmother’s book, Evangeline. Its caramel colored soft brushed leather cover with floral garland, no larger than a piece of toast, tells me the young Michigan girl apparently loved poetry and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
My mind wanders. My elementary school, in Dallas was named for the storied poet and educator. In sixth grade, a boy crushed me taunting, “Hey, you’re a poet and don’t know it. But your feet show it. They’re Longfellows.” For the rest of my life, I would be hung up about my size ten feet. Two decades after I left Longfellow Elementary School, future FLOTUS, Laura Bush taught there. My father’s last position in the oil business was as CEO of her father-in-law’s company in Houston. Six degrees.
I digress. Back to my grandparents.
For a young Michigan girl who collected books passionately to marry a man, my maternal grandfather, with a similar hankering seems storybook.
I remember walking into the long dark hall of my grandparents’ fourth floor apartment in Denver. It felt much like walking into a hushed library; a reverence for literature and authors was palpable. Much like Barnes & Noble today, framed pictures of important authors dressed in dark garb lined the walls above the book laden shelves below. Dickens, Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe. My grandfather, also a writer, collected books, many from the period in his life when he co-owned a small bookstore. I remember The Wizard of Oz, which my brother and I fought over each visit; Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which never interested me; and Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. I loved that book of his so much that I purchased my own copy with my first paycheck, unable to wait to inherit. My copy is nearby on the middle shelf.
One of two books in my library is from my other set of grandparents—my minimalist paternal ancestors—The Methodist Hymnal. Looking at it, I clearly picture my stoic grandparents in their Sunday best Church-going outfits sitting in their pew near the front of the church singing the familiar songs. In my hands, the songbook with the well-worn cover falls open to Faith Of Our Fathers. I skim a few pages and come upon a small offering envelope from Warren Methodist Church in Denver where they married and were memorialized. I never saw either of them reading a book.
I am hesitant to handle the oldest books in my collection. But I believe books are objects, intimate objects, meant to be held and loved. One, no bigger than a deck of playing cards, is over one-hundred-and-fifteen years old. “Given to us by Mother Gardner, 1904” is written by my dad’s mother in the corner of The New Testament. Mother Gardner, my great grandmother. I sit with it. Tiny remnants of the embossed black leather hang from the cover, revealing the padding. An antiquated piece of the corner flutters slowly and softly into my lap. The fragility serves as a memento mori for me. As the book ages, now in its second century, time passes. My grandparents are long gone.
Replacing The New Testament, my eyes continue to scan the books. My breathing slows and I am riveted to another book perched on the top shelf; a short stout book with an eucalyptus green cover. It belonged to my father; its title The A.A. Way of Life. I feel myself bite my lip as a wave of melancholy sweeps over me. My grasp is tentative as I pull it from the shelf. The larger-than-life oil industry presented challenges and hurdles for my dad that he was unable to handle without alcohol. At fifty-five he began the process of getting sober. This little book guided him, as it has thousands of others. It pains me to picture him with the book in his trembling hand as he marched toward sobriety. I will never forget the morning he came to me to say how sorry he was for harm he had done to my life. I later learned it was one of the “The Twelve Suggested Steps—Number 8. Make a list of all persons we have harmed and become willing to make amends to them all.”
I never saw either of my parents read a book for pleasure. Not on a nightstand; not on an end table; not in hand. However, in the house I grew up in, dozens and dozens of newer books lined the shelves of the three walls in our sunny den, thanks to Reader’s Digest Book of the Month Club . One book fascinated the girlish me simply because of its cover—brown and white zebra print. Without opening the book, I was captivated with its exoticness.
It would be many years later when my parents were gone and the book rested on an upper shelf in my house that I learned I Married Adventure is a memoir written in the 1940s by Osa Johnson about her marriage to Martin, their life on a houseboat in Borneo, their exploits with wild animals in Kenya, and their filming expeditions in the Congo. No wonder I was intoxicated by its mysterious pull. Just recently I read that the vintage book is a favorite of prop stylists in photo shoots and that it inspired a new line of perfume featured in O Magazine. Its animal magnetism still captivates me.
I move to three slim readers which lie on their sides, Bambi, Now We Are Six, and Winnie the Pooh. My own little girl books which I read over and over. My book-reading grandmother surprised me my sixth Christmas with a packet of book plates for my books. On the label, a red book stands upright with Alice in Wonderland, the Scarecrow, Robin Hood and other favorite story time characters crawling out from its pages. My name is at the bottom. I remember so clearly pasting each one in my favorite books. I felt so grownup.
Other things are on my shelves besides books. An occasional porcelain figurine or cloisonné bowl; a framed etching and a collection of fetishes; my mother’s silver cigarette case and a photo of my grandchildren taken last summer. There is a small oval filigree picture frame which holds a black-and-white photograph of my husband as a little boy. His dark hair is parted down the middle and he wears short pants. It sits eye level at the end near the dining room. A box of his treasures is close by. On top of the wooden box, a Big Little Book pop culture paper book rests. On the cover, America’s Favorite Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry, white hat and red bandana, smiles up at Champion, his dark sorrel horse’s face. Mabel, my husband’s mother, told me how her brilliant little guy, from four years old, read by flashlight into the wee small hours of the night. Always a voracious reader with an inquisitive mind.
That grown-up little boy’s copies of 1984, The Catcher in the Rye, Shogun, Einstein’s Dreams, and The Koran stand in a line close by on the shelf. The Sense of an Ending does too. I tried so hard to comprehend enough of that books’ content to discuss it intelligently with him. I gave up. His study and comprehension was at a much higher level than mine, always. From him, I learned vicariously.
My shelves are filled with books one or the other of us loved so immensely that we insisted the other read it immediately so we could discuss. The Great Gatsby, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Animal Farm, A Prayer for Owen Meany, which may have been our most favorite. Exodus, My Antonia, The Sound and the Fury, The Greater Journey, most James Patterson and every Mark Twain, Hemingway and Eric Larson offering. For me, all of Anna Quindlen and Ann Patchett. One of the best things in the world is discussing a book in depth with a friend. That’s why book clubs were born. I belong to two.
Great discussion these days in my book clubs about the virtues of e-readers versus books. I read both ways, although never on a screen at bedtime. I also listen to an inordinate amount of audio books, which I have learned recently provide less retainment due to some lack of mind processing. Audio books, however, is a great way to devour big amounts of written words and also to avoid simply concentrating on the traffic and/or savoring quiet time for thinking. I’m glad to live in an era when some important actor will read a book to me as I travel. However, I do love to turn pages—pages of books that offer dark, magical or moody stories.
Since Amazon began bringing books to my front door, I have added regularly to my collection. I wonder what my great-great-grandchildren will speculate about my accumulation of titles. From my always expanding collection of art books and catalogs, they’ll probably realize I’m a student of art history. They will recognize my vintage Texas pull. And they might understand that I admire strong women. Anais Nin, May Sarton, Annie Leibowitz, Frida Kahlo, Mary Oliver, Georgia O’Keeffe. Bad Ass Women Throughout History, a granddaughter’s Christmas gift, is full of them.
But more than that—will they realize that Prick is a beautifully illustrated treatise on acquiring and nurturing succulents? How will they know that Ugly is a fabulous book I bought to research a presentation at the art museum on Ugliness and Beauty in Art? Or that Love, Loss and What I Wore, a delightful small book written and illustrated by Ilene Beckerman generated great insight and happiness in girl’s groups workshops I’ve attended? Will my copy of Points Schmoints linger in someone’s bookcase decades from now? If so, will they understand the game of bridge was a passion of mine? Will Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing reveal another of my passions?
And how on earth will they process the one I just purchased, F*ck That— An Honest Meditation, which I gave to my friend who recently lost his wife. “Let this book help you find peace with the challenges that surround you. Because they are f*cking everywhere,” the author, Jason Headley offers. Will my family in a hundred years know about the unprecedented level of stress, sadness and loss going on this world of the 2000s and that the ability to find humor in that stress is necessary and extraordinary?
I rarely give away a book, but I have given most of my children’s book to their children. I kept the Shel Silversteins and the Dr. Seusses. A faded copy of The Year The Mets Lost Last Place is nestled in my children’s section. Inside, an inscription from my five-year-old son, Bo, to his dad with a big “35” which the little guy scrawled across the page in red crayon. It was the story of the success of the New York Mets in 1969, the year my husband turned thirty-five and we lived in New York.
I also kept Silly Sally and looking at it, I see mile-wide smiles from my little grandchildren. “Silly Sally went to town, walking backwards, upside down…”
Another favorite, Jamie Lee Curtis’s Today I Feel Silly, makes me smile just looking at the title and remembering my little ones enthusiastic choruses in unison as they begged me to read it again and again:
“Today I feel silly.
Mom says it’s the heat.
I put rouge on the cat
And gloves on my feet.”
Books, at least my books, do that. Books can make you feel silly. Or sad. Or smart. Or happy. Books can be touching or telling, zany or serious. My books speak to me. Volumes. Today I feel happy. I’m going to read a book. Delicious.