Thursday, October 04, 2007

Books by the Foot

I come from a family of voracious readers.

When we were kids, my father took us every Friday evening to the Main South Branch of the Worcester Public Library, where we each got to check out 6 books. Using both his card and my mother's, my father got to check out 12 books.

Now, we were by no means reading Les Miserables.  My parents read whodunits, political thrillers, historical fiction, best sellers. I read children's classics (Little House) and dopey books about teenagers (Double Date). We augmented the library supply with book club memberships - children's classics, fake children's classics, American Heritage stories, and the lives of saints - a series called Vision Books. My favorite Vision Books were Lydia Longley: First American Nun, about a Pilgrim girl who was kidnapped by Indians and taken to Montreal where she converted to Catholicism (willingly, no doubt) and became a nun, and More Champions in Sport and Spirit, about Catholic athletes. My favorite athlete was Herb Score, a pitcher who took a liner to the eye from Gil McDougall, I believe, and never really pitched that well again. (As Holden Caulfield observed, Catholics always want to find out if someone else is a Catholic.) We further extended our supply of books with Nancy Drews, Tom Swifts, and Bobbsey Twins that you could get at Woolworth's for fifty cents or a buck.

To this day, I buy a lot of books. I read a lot of books. I trade a lot of books. I have 100% confidence that I can go bookless to the homes of any of my siblings and find plenty to read.

The other day, I was babysitting my niece Caroline, and I managed to cadge an interesting book that my brother Rich had  just finished. At my sister Kathleen's Cape house, there's a table outside the guest rooms that's laden with books. Help yourself. I do. I also drop books off there.

My husband, too, is a reader, although our reading tastes do not have much more than a 1% overlap. (Wildly, he reads no fiction to speak of.)

Given the space constraints of our condo, however, we don't keep all that many books. Off the top of my head, we probably have no more than 500 to 1000 books.

But each and every one of those books is something that we have either read or plan to read.

So I was intrigued by a short article by Austin Kelley in the October 1 New Yorker on a "Books-by-the-Foot" service provided by New York's Strand Bookstore.

One segment of their target market is the film industry, for which they provide the characters' libraries for movie sets. (Interesting to learn that with high-definition, and the ability to zoom in and see just what's in some fake someone's library, filmmakers are very cautious: the books must be character and time appropriate. No more of this "I'll take 20 feet of multi-colored books, thanks.")

I've been in restaurants, bars, and hotels that use a book motif as part of their decor, and Strand serves them, too.  

What truly surprised me is the work that Strand does in creating personal libraries for people.

This I do not get.

We learn that actor Kelsey Grammer "requested all hardback fiction in two of his homes, while Stephen Spielberg...allowed a wider range (cookbooks, children's books, volumes on art and film) to penetrate his Hampton's estate."

This I do not get.

Do Kelsey and Stephen plan on actually reading these books, or do they just want to look at them. Or have people think that they've read them.

They also work for less well known folks who are, presumably, too busy to buy their own books, let alone read them. The Strand is pulling together a collection for a family that includes Dave Eggers "because there are teen-agers in the house."

Don't the teen-agers in the house, have, like, you know, their own books?

Or is it that the books that these folks already own don't match the drapes. Or are too low-brow. (You wouldn't want any Tom Clancy and Danielle Steele on your shelves. What would the maids think?)

Ah, well, just when you think you've heard the last of unusual businesses, and the lengths to which people will go to project an image of themselves....

I remember years ago seeing some tacky "bookshelf" wallpaper. And I'm also aware of facade libraries, in which it looks like you've got books (ponderous tomes; leather bound; ye olde classics), but they're really just the Potemkim village of libraries.

I guess those fake-outs are so yesterday. Today's discerning book decorator wants the real thing. Put those fake faux books up on the shelves? What would the maids think.


Mary Schmidt said...


I'm with you. "Only 500 to 1000 books" - LOL. Off the top of my head, I probably only have about 1200, down from about 2500 (I took four jeep loads to the library when I moved last year.) And that's not counting the vintage cookbooks I collect and the stacks of Gourmet, Saveur and Sunset magazines (and some New Yorker).

A non-reader looks at you as if you're nuts when you throw out numbers like this...and I also routinely have at least 30 books and/or magazines checked out from the library (The Albuquerque library system is terrific.)

I just don't understand people who don't read - or see books as simply decoration. I LOVE books and don't think any room is complete without at least a few. Of course, I also actually read them.

You know, I think the big (and ever-widening) divide isn't between the rich and poor or the technology haves and have nots...It's between people who read and those who don't. Reading encourages thinking (even the worst pot boiler forces you to visualize characters and places.) This is why I find it difficult to believe, for example, that President Bush is reading (ack, ack) Camus - or even Jackie Collins. If our leaders only read a little history...(sigh.)

But there I go...rant, rant.

Read on!

Rick said...

Not exactly what you are talking about, but your post reminded me of bars in some college towns named so that students, when explaining to parents why they didn't answer the phone the previous night, could quite honestly respond "Sorry Mom, but I was at 'The Library'."

Mark Cahill said...

I too have pared down to my essential 500-1000. And they're virtually all kept in my office in the basement. I have too book shelves upstairs, one glass for rare books and essential history/reference stuff, and another small one with a single bottom shelf devoted to my active reading list.

There are other book shelves throughout the house, but the are populated with "books that look good." While I am a reader, my wife is not. She decorates with them. But the idea that the topic of the book might be important is foreign to her, so I have interspersed throughout little gems like Readers Digest Books, etc.

Alas, my eyes are in transition now, and reading is a bit harder for me. But I'm still able to enjoy The Sun Also Rises, or The History of Ireland just as much when I find the time.