Wednesday, January 10, 2024

The Bookcase Rebellion

 Sujata Massey

The Amazon-owned Washington Post recently reported on a poll  by The Economist/YouGov on people's reading habits.


Forty-six percent of people living in the United States read no books last year. Just five percent read one book. This book reading rate was about the same as when I began my writing career in the 1990s. Apparently, the top one percent in the survey were people who read 50 books or more a year. I know los of these people. Truthfully, I probably read thirty books a year, which ranks as the 88th percentile.


The public indifference to books makes the existence of the publishing industry—and advances paid for some flashy books—utterly bizarre. People don't naturally turn to books for fun, no matter how hard we writers wish to entertain, comfort, provoke, or inform.


But I love writing. And one side effect of being a writer is it the accumulation of printed matter. Whenever I have a book published, I'm gifted 25 free copies from the US publisher--and at least 5 copies on average from the foreign publishers who choose to translate one of my books. This means several hundred of books in the house are my own; volumes I'm not likely to be rereading. So why do I keep them? Why, for all the right reasons. I give them away to people who help me with my work, relatives, and the special person who's able to read a Rei Shimura novel in German or a Perveen Mistry book in Korean. And looking at them on the shelf is a reminder that no matter how much I'm struggling, I can get a book written.


But my own works are probably only five percent of what's stored in the house. Even though I regularly purge, I have overstuffed bookcases, a common situation for someone who loves to read and write. I coddle the books I've loved by housing them carefully with the intent of rereading. Yet so many new books come into my life each year that I rarely reopening a loved book. 


I have written about decluttering books before—my journeys hauling books to Little Book Libraries around town, to the drop off point for Books for Africa, to the loading dock for the Maryland Book Bank, and also to used bookstores, before so many of them went out of business. 


This past weekend I looked at my shelves and saw how they were overflowing. So I took a deep breath and brought down some boxes to load up and take to the Maryland Book Bank, which is just a couple of miles away. This felt like my harshest purge ever. I took away books that I consider excellent, often saving just my very favorite by a particular author. Some series, like those by friends Marcia Talley, Laura Lippman, and Lauren Henderson, remained intact. If you are a book person, you know how hard it is to break up a collection; even if the books aren’t being read anymore, they feel like family members who want to stay.


This time around, I am looking at things from a different perspective: that of the built-in bookcases that flank my dining room entrance. The narrow bookcases, clearly added by some do-it-yourselfer many decades ago, make up a total of 32 shelves rising almost eight feet high. The bookcases seemed to be crying out to be treated with respect, not like a dumping ground 


Lately it's seemed that my YouTube and Instagram feeds are packed with examples of beautiful bookcases; often painted in a bold color and wallpapered. They are serene spaces that show art and flowers and short runs of books, usually color-coordinated, or all looking vintage. Recently I stayed in a hotel where the bookcase in the suite held very old books—some dating from the late 1700s. The glamour of the curated bookcase has gone off the charts.


The people who style such bookcases probably aren’t ones who buy upwards of fifty books a year (yes, I buy more than I can possibly read). If it's a years that I’m a a judging committee,  between 150 and 500 books will be shipped to my house. Where do all my books live? Seven designated storage areas in the house (three studies, the living and dining rooms, the butler’s pantry, and a guest room). Oops, space eight is the floor next to my bed!


Recently, an interior designer walked through my home. I had invited her because of a vague feeling I want change in the house. The designer pointed out that there are too many visual elements pulling at the eye. She did not single out books—in fact, she kindly said, “books are the best thing” but she proposed a new bookcase for me. But before I jump to having this installed, I decided to see what I might do with the purge and making my own stab at styling a bookcase that included negative space. As I did the tedious work, hauling books here and there, alphabetizing others and making groupings for history, mystery, cooking and gardening, I took breaks to ponder how-to articles and peruse 'beautiful bookcases' on the Internet. This made me decide to group my vintage cloth- and paper-bound volumes together. If I had a square book that didn't fit the shelf, I faced it out. Bookcase styling is about judging a book by its cover. It's a way of experiencing my own aged book collection as if I were shopping somewhere browsing books I'd like to own.


Some midlifers feel unfulfilled until they buy a luxury car. And then there are those who throw over their old partner for someone younger and hotter. Reinventing my dust-collecting bookshelves feels like a daintier rebellion. It's my way of playing against tradition. I'm even thinking that in the next few months, the scarred white wooden shelves could be painted dark blue. Fabric on the back wall, or a decorative paper. And what about a few strategic spotlights?  


  1. The problem, Sujata, is that whatever you do you will always have too many books. (If such a thing were possible.)

  2. You just enjoy your books girl! Even the memories (sitting on the floor even) of Honolulu old book used book stores are precious.
    I can’t imagine getting rid of your “store”!
    I bet your books make you smile!

  3. Sob! I gave away many books when we moved and I have been playing a little with the bookcases, but I still have six stacks down the side of our bed that are out of sight, but forever in my heart. Thanks for this, Sujata.

  4. Oh Sujata, I just purged my books in Florence, but the only ones I could part with are out of date travel books.Rarely do I reread the favorites that clutter my place in NYC. Old friends! You are so right. They are beautiful to me. The only imaginable happy home for me is to be surrounded by books. And pictures. Thank you for this meditation on who us book lovers really are!!! AA

  5. I'm kind of wanting to clear books too--actually started, but everything I pick up seems to have a (different) reason to stay... we're looking into new bookshelves (again!)