Making the Cut

Not everyone qualifies for shelf space

By Susan S. Kelly

Not long ago someone said to me, “I’m cutting down on friends because I find it cuts down on expectations.” In the same week, my sister informed me that coffee table books are o-u-t. She knows this kind of thing because she lives in Charlotte. Both pronouncements indicated that, after hurriedly sweeping tables free of Irish Country Houses and Flowers for Entertaining and the like, I needed to take a good long look at my bookshelves.

Despite the fact that I’m an inveterate deleter — of photographs, recipes, clothes, emails (especially emails, and you would be too if your daughter had found the one in which you’d commented to your sister that, during your daughter’s semester in France, it was obvious that she’d eaten more éclairs than haricots verts) — I have bookshelves upstairs and down, in bedrooms, in halls, in the kitchen, in an armoire, in corner cupboards, even behind a desk against the wall where I can’t see the books themselves. Time to apply that neat-freak guru’s Does It Bring You Pleasure? dictate to my bookshelf contents.

First to go: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I don’t care if it was my mother’s. I don’t care if it has Mark Twain’s personal signature on the flyleaf. Nobody likes that book. Nobody. The very title makes me think of my son’s comment that melancholy instrumental music always makes him think of summer reading requirements, i.e., depressing. I so get that, and so farewell to Cry, the Beloved Country, too.

Here go the various books penned by my Master of Fine Arts teachers, because I thought that they’d notice I’d bought them and mention to their editors that I was worthy of publication myself. Brown-nosing does not get you published. Maybe, in a pinch, you’ll get a cover blurb, but of course you have to get published first. Out.

Here’s the shelf that makes me think: What was that about? Meaning not the book’s plot, but why I ever bought it. Take Ellen Gilchrist’s books. I thought she was a tough Southern broad and that if I read her stuff, I’d grow up just like her. OK, so that happened; no need to keep. This row of Leon Uris books, when I was on a Jewish jag. Poof. Begone, Barbara Kingsolver. So long Stephen King’s The Stand, the only book I’ve ever read that caused me to shake my husband awake at 2 a.m. because I was so terrified.

Wait, what is Jonathan Livingston Seagull doing here? And Rod McKuen’s Listen to the Quiet? Remnants of the soulful ’70s get no shelf space. Yet what does it say, pray, that I can’t part with The Preppy Handbook? It says that I Instagrammed a photo of it and the number of people who responded that they still had a copy was astounding. What this says about me, or them, is something I’d rather not delve into too deeply. But The Preppy Handbook stays.

Never mind the defunct coffee table books; what to do with all these “little” books? You know, the kind that were gifts or you bought in a museum store. First lines of famous books. Last lines of famous books. The kings and queens of England. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water. Joan Walsh Anglund.

To keep: Eleanor and Franklin, because it was a U. S. History Prize, in high school, and I was so stunned that I won. I’m no history buff, but I’m very good at memorizing. Here goes Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Don’t care that it was a college graduation gift. Don’t care that it’s a Pulitzer. It’s boring, and unlike Annie Dillard, I never was much given to introspection, much to my husband’s dismay. Because here is row upon row of his Jesus books, with sleeping pill titles like Christianity and Culture, The Beginning of Wisdom, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. Lord, I rest my case. Guess I’ll have to keep the two-tome volume of Governor Reagan and President Reagan, since my spouse has never seen fit to even remove the shrink wrap cover.

During a stint as a librarian, I myself shrink wrapped my childhood hardback of Stuart Little because my daughter (see above) read the same copy aloud to me every night before bedtime while I played Tetris on Game Boy — and you’ve never read E. B. White if you haven’t heard it in an 8-year-old’s voice. Nor will I ever part with anything Tasha Tudor illustrated: The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. The four-volume edition of The Raj Quartet and Brideshead Revisited are keepers because I was so addicted to their versions on Masterpiece Theatre.

All Alice McDermott books stay. All Julia Glass books stay. All Jane Smiley books stay. All John Updike novels and short stories stay, if only for the heartbreaking, last-line comeuppance in “A&P” and the marital depiction of “Wife-Wooing.” My copy of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! stays because it falls open naturally to the lines I’ve read so often: “Tell me about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” Here’s to the hard-drinking writers still trying to figure out their love/hate relationship to the South. I think I know one. Besides, don’t you love a great “hate” line? “Love Rebecca? I hate her!” Oh, Maxim de Winter . . . Rebecca, and all Daphne du Mauriers stay.

The $3,000 worth of bridge books stay. They’re an investment . . . that hasn’t matured.

I’m exhausted. Meaning I’m just going to pretend like Dr. Zhivago isn’t staring me in the face right beside Gone with the Wind. After all, tomorrow is another day.  OH

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

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