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In Isolation We Rediscover Our Dusty Bookshelves

In the dull boredom of quarantine, the bookshelf becomes much more than decor or storage.


Over the centuries bookshelves have served two basic purposes. The first is to hold the books we have collected over the years with all of their knowledge and power, and the second is to look nice. If the latter seems somewhat shallow, it shouldn’t. There are few aesthetic accouterments for the home that can match the beauty of a tall bookshelf, even messy ones like mine. As our home entertainment options have exploded these past decades, for many of us that beauty has become our bookshelves’ primary purpose.

But in the age of virus the bookshelves’ other purpose, its more intellectual one is making a comeback. With so much time at home day after day there comes a point when the screens get boring, there’s only so much to stream. In those moments, and I am sure I’m not alone in this, the eye wanders to those ponderous spines lined up like soldiers in a phalanx and slowly we walk up and peruse them.

My love of books came from my grandfather, the one my son is named after. In fact, I have many of his books. If anyone is particularly interested in obscure Judaica they should come by after the virus is gone. I’ve been collecting my own books for thirty years, often secondhand. My beat up volume of “Finnegan’s Wake,” which was a gift in the early 1990s is inscribed, “Frank Alexander Webb III 1950” and beneath that, “Merry Christmas Frank, Sally.” I’ve often wondered who Frank was; I bet we would have gotten along.

This past month, so often alone in my home my puttering perambulations have often brought me to my bookshelves. Back in the normal times this usually happened when I was looking for something specific, a quote for an article or something to lend to a friend. But these days I find myself simply gazing at them; they are books in themselves, more about me than their contents.

There is my stack of Lingua Franca magazines, staple of my curious mid 20s. Over there several works of Louis Aragon, a later passion. Here a slim volume called “The Truth About Shakespeare,” published in 1913. It’s curious, but when I look at my DVDs or CDs I can scarcely remember where or when I acquired any of them. Not so with my books. I can remember touching most of them for the first time.

If you can judge a man’s virtue by his enemies, you can know his soul by his books. Nothing is quite such a history of oneself as one’s bookshelves. There lie our curiosities and concerns, some still with us, some faded away and yellowed somewhere in the recesses of our minds. Phases of a lifetime’s interests; that Civil War kick, that summer filled with Pynchon.

Isolation naturally brings with it introspection, thoughts folding in on each other, questions of who we are. Bookshelves are roadmaps of introspection, bringing order to the scattered history of memory. Reminding us where we have been in our own minds. And as our eyes thumb through the titles at times one strikes our fancy, we pull it out, its pages once again see light, perhaps we place it back, perhaps we find a quiet spot and enjoy some time with it.

Upsides are difficult to locate amid the dreary drone of death pouring from our feeds, the doors of our homes clanking shut like jail cells. But for those in love with books, who have that mysterious passion, the bookshelf is a sweet relief from all the fear and uncertainty. There is nothing quite so certain as a book, so solid and unchanging. Every time, exactly as you left it.

So when this madness gets you down, look to your shelves, they will look back. Let yourself get lost in the magic of it all, the wonder of what you amassed all these years. Think about the time to come when you will add to it, creating a new chapter in its colorful table of contents. Because a bookshelf’s story is never over. It is always incomplete. Like us it always wants more.

In these troubling times we must catch comfort where we can, though we did not know it at the time, each of the dozens or hundreds of purchases, gifts, or inheritances of books was preparing for just a time like this. We stocked up on canned goods for our pantries a month ago, we have stocked up on books for our shelves our whole lives. Now is the time to enjoy them.