The Spinning Bookshelf

Culling a home library takes fortitude (and flexibility).


My husband and I move slowly on small decisions. A menu choice requires consideration. But big decisions fall into place by accident or fate. Getting married? Snap consensus. Reduce our living space by a third, transplant from the Maryland suburbs to Washington? Close to impulse.

The (Eventual) Plan had always been to downsize and urbanize, but it accelerated into high gear six years ago when we took a test drive, “just looking” at a couple of open DC apartments. Always suckers for charm over practicality, we fell hard for the second place we walked into: a 1929 co-op almost as old as the rambling bungalow we would be leaving. Identical glass doorknobs, glinting like prisms in the sun-drenched rooms, clinched the deal for me.

No buyer’s remorse, but papers signed, closing date set, we began — gulp — to reckon with readying our 86-year-old house for market and the necessary decluttering and deaccessioning before the move.

This included culling our library, crammed bookshelves in every room. Cookbooks in the pantry, walls of bookshelves in our studies, more in the bedrooms and the closets. Even a wall of shelves in the basement where our kids had played library — date stamp, check-out cards, and books still there. Inherited volumes lurked in piles under the ping-pong table.

How many books altogether? Let’s just say an abundance: guidebooks, how-to books, history, fiction, poetry, art books, and textbooks in duplicate, like Janson’s History of Art and triplicate editions of Palmer’s A History of the Modern World.

We love books, but ours are not the calfskin-bound beauties decorators buy by the yard — not an acceptable fate for our books, anyway. In my first social-work job, I sought foster care placements for frail elders. Now I discovered well-read, well-used old books are almost as hard to place. One thrift shop accepted books; one organization shipped children’s books to communities in need.

But there was nowhere for textbooks and guidebooks except the maw of the county transfer station (aka dump, transfer to oblivion). I became a regular at liquor stores — just scavenging empty boxes, though library winnowing could drive you to drink. I sorted into categories: Keep, Donate, Take to the Farm. Cheating with that third category — taking books I could neither part with nor squeeze into the apartment to our summerhouse attic.

My first project after moving day was spreading books on the floor, Marie Kondo style. All “sparked joy,” but we still had too many. Hence our first and only renovation: a wall of shelves in my tiny writing room for my dearest books.

I shelve according to a personal system. The lower shelves, closest to reach and heart, hold poetry, including Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Liesl Mueller, and Mary Oliver. Also close by are authors’ letters (Bishop again, Robert Lowell, Eudora Welty, William Maxwell) to keep me company, and childhood favorites like Rachel Field’s Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (my introduction to historical fiction), Robert Lawson’s Rabbit Hill, Rumer Godden’s Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, and Maurice Sendak’s Nutshell Library.

Middle shelves hold fiction by favorite authors, not alphabetized, rather adjacent according to who makes good neighbors: Laurie Colwin and Ray Bradbury, Peter Taylor and Margaret Drabble, Robb Forman Dew and Penelope Lively, Wendell Berry and William Maxwell.

History on upper shelves includes volumes on Japan acquired while researching my first novel; The History of the English Yeoman written by my great-aunt almost 80 years ago; the biography of Ulysses S. Grant with my father’s final bookmark between the pages. Access to the reference books on the topmost shelf requires the kitchen stepstool, but I rarely need Gesell and Ilg on child development or the needlework book.

My system is arbitrary, but seeking a particular book, I find it (though volumes do re-arrange themselves like guests at a dinner party disregarding assigned seats when the controlling hostess steps away). If I can’t find it, I rummage next time I’m in the farmhouse attic. So my downsized apartment library is really a secret, spinning bookshelf — with the hidden books 200 miles away. On occasion, I come up empty-handed in the attic — a downsizing mistake or just too many boxes. More often, reader’s radar guides me.

This spring, I suddenly yearned for Rufous Redtail, my grade-school nature teacher’s rainy-day read-aloud. Helen Garrett’s 1947 story follows Rufous from hatching to fledging to mating. Watching a pair of red-shouldered hawks tend their brood in Rock Creek Park prompted the yen to reread. The nest was just below a bridge on busy Connecticut Avenue. Every day, along with masked, socially distant strangers, I cheered as three chicks developed from fluffy dryer lint with gaping beaks into elegant juveniles taking their first flights. When the nest was finally empty, I missed the hawks and reached for Rufous.

But out-of-print Rufous had not made the original cut for my apartment shelves, nor my neighborhood library’s catalogue (and, anyway, the library was closed). An online bookseller’s copy would have cost $700! We didn’t go to the country until June because of the pandemic; there, I found Rufous waiting in the attic and settled to read in the hammock.

Now it’s time to shut the house for winter. Migrating raptors soar overhead. Rufous’ descendants, perhaps, or the brood from the city? I wave, promising to take the book with me and find room for Rufous in the apartment.

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s new collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song is forthcoming in spring 2021. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.

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