My house has more books in it than it has cups, or plates, or forks and spoons, or ornaments, or pictures, or towels and sheets, or even clothes. Sometimes, when I visit another house where there are few books, or no books, the state of my book-filled house seems to me strange and eccentric, or odd at least. On the other hand, I feel that living with many books around is the only way to live. I exaggerate – but not really.
Every room in my house, except for the bathroom, has books in it. Some of the bookshelves are makeshift and plain – a couple were castoffs found on the curb – but two of them are beautiful and dark wood, and old. I would love more bookshelves, and beautiful ones, but I hardly have room. And I live with other people, after all.
My husband has never said he appreciates living with books everywhere, but I know that he does. I have known this about him since the first time he came to my apartment on Shallmar Boulevard in Toronto when I was 27, and he saw the huge white bookshelf filled with books. I knew, by instinct, that he loved all those books piled there as much as I did. That was 36 years ago and I was right in my instinct.
There is another person who is tied tightly in my mind with my books, and that is my mother. This story – the story of my bookshelves – begins with my mother, or, come to think of it, with my grandmother, but more about that later.
My books are almost all fiction. I never really thought about that until now, when writing this essay, because I took for granted that the most magical and wonderful thing one can read is fiction, and I imagined that everyone must feel the same.
But as I cast my eyes over a bookshelf in my hallway, I see non-fiction also: The History of Nantucket: County, Island, and Town; The English: A Portrait of a People; We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta Nehisi-Coates. Celtic Myths and Legends. The Japanese Mind. And so on.
I have a large number of reference books: English dictionaries, many, and French-English ones; Hebrew-English ones, Yiddish-English ones, and a single Afrikaans-English one. Several atlases of the world. The Canadian Oxford School Atlas, third edition, is there; it looks very worn, and I think one of my children had it in grade three.
There are books about writing and writing style, and works of literary criticism. Aspects of Macbeth. Seven Types of Ambiguity.
I have books about art and painting, quite a few. One of them, Impressionists and Impressionism, is a large and lustrous coffee-table book with colour plates. It’s so large it fits on only one of the bookshelves, the one with freakishly tall shelves.
As it turns out, its size is apt for the space – the great and large space – this book holds in my mind. At the front of the book is my mother’s handwriting with the following inscription:
To dearest Dawn,
Wishing you a very happy 17th birthday.
Tons of love,
Mom and Dad
Which tells you something about how my mother fits into this story, the story of my bookshelves. She is the beginning of the story, as I’ve already said.
There are, here and there on my shelves, books in Hebrew. All of them are old and worn, but they glint with the allure of things mysterious, yet deeply familiar. They are prayer books that my husband brought with him, from his childhood, or prayer books that I have kept, from my grandparents. In one, my grandfather has inscribed:
To dear Zelma, with love from Jack
18 September 1952.
It was a gift for Rosh Hashanah, the New Year’s prayer book, to my grandmother. It’s a small, feminine-looking book with a mother-of-pearl cover, iridescent. I’ve never seen another like it. I’d call it alluring, in a sexual way, were that not an odd way to describe a prayer book.
I can read Hebrew, and scanning my shelves I feel a secret pleasure reading the Hebrew titles. Perhaps the pleasure is secret because I have absorbed, as if by osmosis and in spite of myself, a fear about being Jewish. Can this be true?
I feel the pleasure to be secret in any case. It is secret, and that’s that. (Although I’ve told you, now.)
And speaking of Hebrew: I own every single work of Amos Oz, most of them novels. But in English; I read them in English. I adore the work of Amos Oz. I once lent six of his books all at once to a friend, and regretted it instantly. I’ve not got them back yet because I keep forgetting to ask her.
And this is part of having bookshelves of books, isn’t it, that one feels compelled to recommend books to other people; compelled to press upon other people books one has loved. In this way books are about love, about reaching the hearts of other people, and telling them something – and love always comes into that, doesn’t it?
Over the course of my life I have lived on three continents. The books I acquired in my first life, in South Africa, were taken with me to London, England, to my second life, where they gathered more books unto themselves, and were then taken to Toronto, to my third life. I have never thrown away a book on any of these journeys, or at the beginning or end of these journeys. Although I’ve lent books, I’ve never given a book away. Or sold one. This is quite true. I am unable to get rid of a book.
I have duplicates of books; I keep them. I have different editions of the same book; I buy them on purpose. But I have exact duplicates of some books. I realize, here, that this is eccentric. Impractical, certainly.
Speaking of impractical. I am quite disorganized, by which I mean, I don’t care much about order. So my books are not in any order. This makes it difficult to find a particular book at any one time, and so I spend (waste) quite a bit of time looking for one book, or another. On the other hand, I don’t consider that a waste of time. Looking at my books, looking through my books, is never a waste of time because I find it deeply comforting. And here we come to the crux of the matter: comforting.
When I sit in a room, a room in my house, I always have a view of a shelf of books. Casting my eyes over such a shelf, I feel comforted and energized at the same time. I think it is because of books’ inexhaustibility. I will never be bored, because I always have a book to pick up.
My mother loved books and read books because her mother – my grandmother – loved books. My grandmother read novels. At the end of her life, she was in a retirement home on Don Mills Road in Toronto, and I would visit, to find her waiting for me in the lobby, a hardcover book open on her lap. She was fastidious about using bookmarks. She would be reading.
And perhaps the most beautiful bookshelf in my house is one that belonged to my grandmother. She used it not as a bookshelf but as a cabinet for ornaments, china and glass ornaments. No matter. She is the one who read and loved books. I should add that this cabinet – this bookshelf – lived in my grandmother’s house in a small town in the Orange Free State province, in the middle of the veld in South Africa. So it has travelled quite a way.
My mother, for her part, was a librarian and a collector of antiquarian books, and of all books. A couple of my bookshelves are filled with antiquarian books that she gave me. The shelves are wedged where there’s room, so they’re easy to miss in my house, and antiquarian books are most often dun-coloured and faded with time: a dusty navy, a deep, worn green. I love them unreasonably.
I have an idea that my books are a bulwark against some great loss that looms behind me, in my mind. Behind me? Or in front of me? I’m not sure. It’s a sense of loss, of impending or past loss, that I live with every day.
Perhaps the books might act as an insurance or protection of some kind. My rational mind knows there can be no insurance against loss; yet one tries, one tries to build a defence, book by book, bookshelf by bookshelf.
I never imagined or dreamed that I myself would write a book.
It was relatively late in my life (in my forties) when I realized that stories I was writing were publishable. The stories became my first book, my short story collection, published in 2010. And now, in 2023, I have two books that I’ve written that are on bookshelves, on my bookshelves. But they are also on bookshelves all over: in book stores, in public libraries, and on other people’s home bookshelves. This seems to me beyond miraculous.
I do believe that books carry everything, by which I mean, they carry our heritage, they carry our ideas, they carry who we are. They are us. This is why I cannot get rid of a book, because it feels like a death, to get rid of a book. I know and realize that these feelings I have verge on the irrational, but I own them (the feelings; the books).
Dawn Promislow’s novel, Wan, was published last year
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