by Jill amadio
Books, books, books. Does the possession of them denote one’s mental state, intelligence, or expertise? I have often been forced to come to some conclusion when I have watched pundits and talking heads expound on television, especially during Zoom interviews during the pandemic. Invariably they place themselves in a chair in front a bulging bookcase. Who tells them to do this?
The bookshelves appear to be mostly Ikea white and perhaps hastily purchased when asked to appear on TV from home. Do these people rush out to second-hand bookstores to load up books with which to fill the shelves? Leading, of course, to viewers wanting to know, “What are you reading?”
One pundit had his books arranged by spine color and seemed particularly attracted to blue with three shelves of them. Another, a doctor, had a stethoscope dangling from the top shelf. A female psychiatrist had a full shelf of Very Large Tomes behind her head, and a couple of attorneys stood in front of their office law libraries while being interviewed. I haven’t seen a chef interviewed unless he was in the kitchen and I imagine he’d never sink so low as to stand in front of other chefs’ cookbooks. The exception, of course, would be his own recipe book but usually cooks teach by showing rather than telling; the same advice impressed upon authors.
Writers, of course, have more sense. They place their books full frontal on the shelf unless they have only a single book so far. A handful of years ago I went to the Barnes and Noble bookstore in the South Bay where my friend, Christopher J. Lynch, was signing his biography of “Leave It to Beaver” star, Ken Osmond. The store manager had commandeered an entire wall of bookshelves, and filled them with copies of the books facing out. It was a stunning display for an author.
Many writers I know run out of bookshelf space and begin piling books on the floor or finding nooks and crannies to fill. One client for whom I ghostwrote a biography kept a small shelf of paperbacks in her bathroom as many people do. I spotted another who had a penchant for refusing to return library books and not even bothering to removing their old category tags.
Sol Stein, of Stein and Day publishing, invited me to lunch at his baronial estate on the Hudson River in New York. He led me through four rooms completely occupied by books, piled precariously halfway up the walls and all over the floor. Most of them were not new editions from his company but appeared to be his lust for reading. His book, “Stein on Writing” is still my bible when I get stuck trying to figure out plot points and character.
Since my move to Connecticut I haven’t been invited into anyone’s home yet as people here tend to meet at cafes, parks, or the beach. Just as well. We really shouldn’t judge a person by their books. I have brought many of my books with me and I will cling to them forever, especially the how-to-murder manuals and other crime research books. My favorites include “The Secret Service” which inexplicably details their crime-fighting methods; how the witness protection program works, and their training sessions. Another is “The Writer’s Complete Crime reference Book,” and a well-thumbed edition of an 11-lb. book describing just about every opera ever composed, debuted, and by whom sung.
It’s no secret that many authors find titles from the classics including poetry on their bookshelves. Shakespeare’s works are a prime target for this kind of research. I used my extremely heavy “The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations,” published in 1953, to find the title for my latest book, “In Terror’s Deadly Clasp,” within a poem by John Donne.
Although Google and other online search engines have replaced the need for consulting hard copies and trips to the library, reading a print book for ideas can often lead to more ideas if you happen to turn to the wrong page and discover a piece of information you can use in your writing. As I grow older I find myself more frequently reading “A Thematic Dictionary.” It is a ‘discriptionary’ with cross-references three different ways for those of us who know what something is but not what it is called, although it may be just on the tip of the tongue. The section on lungs is fascinating for its explanation of devil’s grip and goblet cells.
Perhaps paying a visit to your own bookshelves will reveal a treasure you had forgotten. I wish I had bought a book I found at an airport gift shop in Jakarta. It was bound in beautiful red leather and titled “Sukarno.” I opened it up and every page was blank. I guess the publisher wanted to titillate buyers before the Indonesian leader passed away and there would be no repercussions about his controversial reign while he still lived.
Bookshelves and their contents are food for thought. What is on yours?
Photo by Dakota Corbin on Unsplash
Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash