What’s On Your bookshelf?

My Life’s Editor rose from the couch where we eat ice cream (Trader Joe’s Mint Chocolate Chip) and split chocolate bars (Moser Roth Dark Sea Salt Caramel) on alternate nights while we watch Judy Woodruff chat up the day’s notables. She got close to the 50-inch screen, squinted and said, “I can’t tell. It looks like Worms and Peas.” I got up from the couch, put on my 2.25 magnifiers, stared closely at the screen and pronounced, “No, it’s War and Peace.” Each evening a stream of learned and worthy types looks out at us from the TV, interlocutors as well as interviewees live streaming from their abodes. On one side of the split screen we see Jeffrey, Lisa, or Bill; on the other side we see the interviewee. Everyone is frowny because things are dire in this time of mass self-incarceration.  Faces swell and produce a googly-head E.T. affect if they are too close to the computer. Gesturing hands up close look like giant mutant crabs.  What interests My Life’s Editor and me are the bookshelves behind the talking heads. We peer closely at the books behind the good and great, trying to see what they read.  Was that Team of Rivals behind Amy Walter? Elements of Style behind Yamiche Alcindor? Hornblower and the Hotspur behind Admiral Mike Mullen? 50 Shades of Grey behind Janet Yellin? We believe someone’s books are the measure of the man or woman. We assume these folks have read the books behind them or intend to do so at a future date, pandemic allowing. When My Life’s Editor and I were first married, we lived on East Elm in downtown Chicago and would close out an evening on Rush Street by stopping at a used book store at the southwest corner of State and Elm. It was owned by a crabby, unkempt guy who sat in the back, surrounded by his dusty inventory, desk littered with scraps of paper, Post-It notes and one cold cup of black coffee. He would look up from his reading, exposing the gravy stain on his shirt, and growl when I brought up a book that I wanted to buy. On one occasion, I was stunned when an interior decorator appeared next to me at the grouch’s desk and said he wanted to purchase ten feet of “good-looking books” for his customer’s library. What? Who buys books by the foot, like sausage links?

I came to books late as a kid. I was an Army brat; books were a luxury since we moved every two years and had to travel light. What furniture and possessions we had were slowly demolished by movers, assignment to assignment. Family goods would sit on a crate in Bremerhaven, marinating in the rain until making the trek to Stuttgart. Crate opening was like “Wheel of Fortune.” What would we find in this box? Didn’t we used to have a coffee table? With water stains from my parents’ martinis? I read AC Comics – “Battle Action” and “War Comics” – until I found the post library, a bicycle ride away. After that, it was start with the farthest book on the left and read until I hit the end of the shelf, go down one shelf, repeat.

Over the years, wherever My Life’s Editor and I traveled we visited used book sellers, checking out their shirt fronts to see what they had eaten for lunch. We learned to extract books from a book store shelf not by tugging at the spine, damaging it, but by pushing in the two books beside our target to grip it and slide it out.  More and more books came home with us, like stray dogs from the pound, many battered, now treasured, all with the dust patina that the book trade calls “the real estate.” Each of our homes has required construction of built-in bookshelves, involving many trips to Home Depot, much swearing, and application of bourbon lubricant. My Life’s Editor was our first construction casualty. She came down with lumbago while painting bookshelves, something that sounds like an affliction of 19th century dowagers, only exceeded in popularity by dropsy.

Consider for a moment: books versus a digital device. An iPad lying doggo on a kitchen table may have twenty books inside but says zip about that fact. Same twenty books on a shelf, in the flesh, screams what a prodigious reader you are. Try to use an iPad to support the broken leg of a couch. Not much good. Three 500-word books, no problem. Want to get the glue to set on a project? Press a flower? Don’t reach for an iPad. Try to flatten a roach with an iPad, the roach sneers. Try a book, and the average palmetto bug is a grease spot. Put an iPad down as a door stop, the door just pushes it aside. Finally, an epic, 700-page book is a world-class sleep aid. That reminds me. It is 3:00 in the afternoon on this 30th day of house arrest …. I think I’ll pull out The Wealth of Nations and toddle off to the couch.


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