Sunday, January 23, 2011

Discover Yourself on a Bookshelf

Charlotte Canelli is library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood. Read her column in the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin each Thursday.
When I married my husband in 2007 I decided that it was important to keep his grandson, Colin, in the only home he had ever known in his young nine years and the one that Gerry himself has lived in it for over a quarter of a century.

Combining households, however, was a “traumatic adventure” for both of us. I use the word “adventure” because it was a delightful beginning; a new life for Gerry who had lost a wife to cancer after many years of marriage. It was also a romantic fresh start for me after a painful divorce in 1999.

I use the word “traumatic” because we both brought utterly complete and cluttery lives to one combined house. It was an over-abundance of furniture and stuff, some of which we managed to give away and sell that first year. Most we crammed into available space.

On a whim this past weekend, Gerry and I decided to take a look at an antique farmhouse in Norfolk that had been on the market for some time. In the end, we decided against the farmhouse, but this impulsive peek at real estate and the reality of moving struck me with intense panic. I realized then that it will take us years to go through the houses, the garages, the basements and the attics of two homes in order to even begin the process of thinking of moving.

Arriving home that day I moved into position. Impulsive but refreshingly decisive, I decided to begin the process. And so it was that I started at a logical place, the bookshelves.

In “Howard’s End Is On the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home”, author Susan Hill recounts the story of spending a year reading through the countless books that filled her home. Some books had been long forgotten, some had never been read. Her journey includes memories of the libraries, the book-givers, the stories and the physical books that defined her life of over sixty years. Hill has advice for those of us who accumulate books. Sort out those travel books from trips completed or the definitive guide to owning a pet that has long-ago died. “Pass the thrillers on to a friend.” You rarely read a thriller twice. Keep those books that speak to you in some way - those that you simply can’t let go.

I had “weeded” my bookshelves many times in the past decade since selling my family home in 2001 and moving multiple times. Last week, however, I finally parted with thick volumes of encyclopedias of quotations and literature. I packed up bestselling current literature that I’d always hoped to have time to read and haven’t. I painfully removed books of Soviet history. Those books were simply old news and the world and I have both moved on. In addition, I work in a library surrounded by many of those same books. Given the whim, I can simply pluck the book from the shelves that are steps from my office.

More importantly, of course, this column must include the story of the books that I simply cannot let go. As a former children’s librarian, many of those books are children’s books and some of them are books from my own childhood.

My mother was given books for her birthdays and these were the Children of America Stories and Children of All Lands Stories published in the 1940s. The stories formed my love of adventure and the inscriptions inside the books include my mother’s name.

My mother began giving me the Illustrated Junior Library Classics when I was eight. The first was “The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew” and “Heidi” and “Little Women”. Many others joined those in the years that followed. My own daughters weren’t interested in those classics but I can’t part with them.

Years later I discovered The Whole Story series of classics which contain unabridged text, annotations and lavish illustrations. My favorites are “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Treasure Island” – stories I had somehow missed as a young girl.

Later on I fell in love with Maria Tatar’s and Michael Hearn’s richly annotated versions of the “Brothers Grimm”, the “Wizard of Oz” and “A Christmas Carol” and more. Reading those books on a lazy weekend (which are editions for adults) I can get endlessly lost.

Of course “Make Way for Ducklings” and “Goodnight Moon” will always stay on my shelves along with “Six by Seuss”, “Charlotte’s Web” and ten beautiful versions of “Alice and Wonderland”. I can’t part with any of the volumes of Lemony Snicket, the poetry of Shel Silverstein or a 1950 version of the “The Bobbsey Twins” that I ordered through a used-book dealer. When the book arrived I immediately read the first chapter for the umpteenth time. In it Freddie and Flossie furnish tiny houses made from cardboard boxes. I probably owe some of my imaginary sense to author Laura Lee Hope.

After a few hours I had packed 6 boxes and bags of books to donate to the Friends of the Library. These hardly made a dent on the shelves although most of my rearranged books seem to be breathing fresher air. I have temporarily loaned my collection of pop-up books to a display in the foyer of the library. They are marvels of paper engineering and they will forever intrigue me. They will remain there throughout the rest of January and the entire month of February.

Spend a day with your own bookshelves. You might discover yourself on them.

For help searching in the Minuteman catalog or for placing requests for books, please visit the Morrill Memorial Library, call the Reference librarians (781-769-0200) or visit the Minuteman Library Catalog on our website,