Loving Books

A Shelf Half-Full is Not Enough

by Kathy Coogan

Last week I spent a day in the catacombs of our basement creating piles of Keep, Toss or Give Away. We have only been in this house for seven years and had been surgical in deciding what to bring here then. But alas, that stuff had mated and multiplied and been joined by new arrivals to the cave.

There were lots of easy decisions to be made: haven’t ice-skated in fifteen years – OUT damn skates! The bedspreads and quilts that had been replaced by nicer long ago – BEGONE! The lamp-less shades and the shade-less lamps – OFF WITH YE.

Picture-less frames and frame-less pictures would be happier in someone else’s gallery. Fabric remnants from three couches ago would inspire a quilt-maker or a bohemian. Baby accoutrement that I couldn’t part with way back when seemed dispensable now.

With each item released, I felt lighter, neater, smarter even prettier. I felt generous, efficient and productive.

Until I came to the collections of books. Oh, beloved Dick Francis and his steeplechase mysteries. Dean Koontz - scary and smart. James Herriot's endearing English Dales country veterinarian, just gory enough. 1950’s John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee who solved dilemmas from his Florida houseboat between bedding nymphettes for their own good.

Anne Tyler, Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, Annie Proulx, Amy Tan. Tom Clancy, Tom Wolfe. Uris, Wouk. Parker, King, Conroy, Lehane. Complete collections of softback and hardcover contemporary fiction (or what was contemporary fiction when it was written.)

I couldn’t help myself. I lifted a book at random off the shelf: Scott Turow. “Don’t open it, don’t you dare open it. There is work to be done,” I told myself. But who can hold a book and not open it? Self-control like that, I do not have. Loving books is a compelling addiction.

It was a hardback of Burden of Proof, the 1990 best-seller, one of Turow’s many. I had read it then, always a sucker for a brand new title by this lawyer-author. Sandy Stern, on page two, discovers his wife, a suicide in the garage. And off we go. Who could stop there? A colder, less curious woman than me might have snapped the cover shut and returned to her schlepping.

I instead blew a precious fifteen minutes standing, turning pages, maybe even moving my lips a little, entranced with the telling of this story. Perhaps my arms got tired from holding the book chest-high or my knees reminded me that they were in a locked position, but eventually I came up for air, sighing.

Though I remembered the bare bones of the tale, (wife dies; brother-in-law/client engages in commodities crime; children become entangled; sex and love happen to this fifty-six year old widower/lawyer; turns and twists ensnare them all), I was purely enraptured with the telling.

Before I laid the book on the table, marked at my page, I flipped through to the almost end. I remembered a glimmer of a single sentence that I knew to be important for me to re-read right now. I am in a different place than I was in 1990, the year of my first reading. The life of the reader inculcates the book with more than the author ever intended. I needed that sentence.

After thumbing and scanning, there it was. Would Scott Turow be surprised that of all the thousands of words that he had written, that these words would have import to a woman, twenty-one years later? “The cup is not half empty or half full – the concern is over how much remains.”

Churning with Turow’s story and the one that I am living with its own turns and twists, I returned to my storage room, intent on making it half-empty. The bookshelves would take someone else’s resolve to pare them, in this lifetime, from over-stuffed to neatly half-full.

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