"I am surrounded by books. Every room, every space in my large, sprawling 1750s house is full of books..."
I am surrounded by books. Every room, every space in my large, sprawling 1750s house is full of books, including the upstairs hall, the downstairs hall, and four bathrooms. Occasionally I make a pale attempt to weed out unwanted books to make room for the sacks of books I’ve just acquired at the West Tisbury Library’s summer book sale, but the attempts end up with more piles of books on the floor.
There are no unwanted books.
It is apparently genetic. My father built bookcases suspended cleverly from the ceiling to hold books, of course. My great aunt Alvida, a maiden lady, lived in this great house alone for many years in the late 1800s and early 1900s, surrounded by books with inscriptions like, “To Miss Cleaveland, in hopes she will read my latest book on Christian Ethics.” How can I get rid of that, or others like it? The books Aunt Alvida cherished, the books my father collected on biography, history, and Indians, the books my mother collected on King Arthur and the Arthurian legend, on poetry, on Turkey and travel and. . . oh, everything!
These are not my reading choice, but how can I separate them from this book-welcoming house? I’ve got shelves and more shelves of my very own of mysteries and fiction. My poor kids, and the generations who come next into this house of books, will probably want places to stack their sci-fi and romance and techie books. I warn my B&B guests, “This is an old house. The floors creak, the doors don’t shut, shared bathrooms, no television, and books, books, books, everywhere. . .” The guests I haven’t scared away have become warm friends.
I do have a daughter who believes in simplifying life. Getting rid of useless things. She keeps quoting Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” I can’t argue with her. She’s right. But she classifies books as “useless details” by which her life is frittered away. “It’s all on the internet, Mama! Why collect all these dust catchers, when you can simply log on?” She has a point. My well-worn upstairs dictionary (there are three more downstairs) is truly gathering dust, because when I need the right word defined for a spot in my latest manuscript, what do I do? I click on that image on the side of my computer screen that leads me to Google and a bunch of definitions pop up, just like that.
Nevertheless, my thousands (really, thousands?) and thousands of books are here to stay. I tell my daughter they are decorative. She says a plain white wall is more attractive. I tell her they’re good insulation, blocking the Island’s cold winter winds. She points out that the 350 windows in this house, most dating from the 1700s, are where the cold winter winds are breezing in. I tell her . . . oh, forget it. Someone gave me a gift certificate to Bunch of Grapes Bookstore and I know just the book I want to buy.
Cynthia Riggs, a thirteenth-generation Islander, lives on Martha's Vineyard in her family homestead, now a bed-and-breakfast catering to poets and writers. She has a degree in geology from Antioch College, an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College, and holds a US Coast Guard Masters License (100-ton). Cynthia has five children, and 13 grandchildren.
This “Writers on Reading” essay was originally published in “At the Scene” enews June 2018 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.