I have books in every room of my house except the bathroom and kitchen. The living room, the front hallway, the dining room and the three bedrooms all have bookshelves, as does the basement TV room (six of them; it’s a big room).
This is not how I grew up. My father was an English professor and a writer, and he, too, had a lot of books. But for many years, his books were mostly tucked out of sight in the creepy unfinished basement of our Duluth home. He kept them in a small room behind the scary furnace and opposite the old coal cellar.
I used to tiptoe down the basement stairs, peer into the dark corners that might hold ghosts and monsters and who knows what, then rocket across the floor to the book room, where I pushed open the door and fell happily inside.
The walls of the book room were painted white and lined with black metal shelves, and it was here where my father kept his literature — novels, poetry and plays, including the complete works of William Shakespeare. And it was here where I spent many hours of my childhood, sitting on a blanket on the cold concrete floor, reading.
Why were the books in the basement? My father believed that displaying books in one’s living space was gauche. He found it blue- collar, show-offy, something done by people who wanted to look like intellectuals. He had been proud to rise above his own blue-collar childhood; his father, who left school after the eighth grade, was the son of immigrants who spoke only German, and his mother was the daughter of Irish farmers.
My father’s determination to hide his books didn’t make sense to me until a few weeks ago when I read a home decorating story in the newspaper. Books, the story said, can “dress up shelves and add a pop of color to any space.”
I’m not sure this is how anyone would view the books in my house. They’re messy, stacked any which way. And while they might add a pop of color, it’s more true that they add a lot of dust.
The story went on: “The beauty of books is that they come in all different shapes, sizes and colors.”
It seems to me that the beauty of books comes more from the fact that the writers come in different shapes, sizes and colors — as well as mind-sets, points of view, background and attitude. But I am trying hard not to be a snob here, trying to be somewhere between my father the book hider and someone who thinks of books as baubles.
The story had tips: Hard-bound books “feel more luxurious” than paperback. Fashion books are bound in “festive, fun colors.” Flea markets are a great place to buy “vintage books.” (This is what you and I would call used books.)
Then came the tip that floored me: “Consider a monochromatic theme. Books that are all one color can make a bold statement.”
Let us stop and consider this for a moment. Picture your house, with its bookshelves, which probably are crammed full of books of all sizes, some old (or vintage), some new, some paperback, some hard-bound. And then picture a room where the shelves all have identical books, same size, same color — who knows, maybe the same book, over and over, making a statement.
And that statement would be: “Do not touch these books. They are here for show.”
My father read his books. He taught them. He underlined key passages and wrote spiky little inscrutable notes in the margins with a fountain pen. He loved his books too much to treat them as objects.
My books are on display in every room in my house because there is nowhere else to put them. They, too, make a statement. And I hope that statement is: “This is the home of a reader. Here are some books. Come browse, and borrow. And I’m sorry about the dust.”
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks