When I housesit for several months for friends in rural southwest Colorado, I allow myself to bring along a single bookcase, tall and narrow, made of lightweight pine and fitting easily in the back of my Jeep. The rest of my library—thirty-five boxes of books—is in storage across the state line in Blanding, Utah.
Of the five shelves on my bookcase, the top one is the most important, because it holds the books related to my work-in-progress, a novel with the working title Rivers of America. The shelf is just below eye-level. Not intimidatingly high, not so low as to be out of sight.
My novel includes invented geography and natural history, which are also elements of my recently published story collection, Recapture & Other Stories (Torrey House Press, 2012). The novel is set, in part, on a massive natural bridge in southern Utah’s canyon country. (Picture the Ponte Vecchio built on red rock.) It’s partly inspired by a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which Apollo pursues a nymph who escapes by turning into a laurel tree. In my novel, it’s aspens instead of laurels, and the cast of characters includes archaeologists and miners working during a gold rush, or possibly a uranium boom.
Accordingly, the contents of my top shelf range in time from ancient to contemporary, and in space from Europe to the Americas. The books include:
- Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Arthur Golding, 1567.
- Prose fiction from the English Renaissance, including Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, a book I loathed with all my heart when it was required reading for one of my graduate courses in English lit twenty years ago. I’ve been drawn back to it for its form, a Greek-inspired romance quite unlike the modern, post-18th-century novel.
- Books about places, real and imaginary: the WPA-produced Utah: A Guide to the State; several volumes in the landmark Rivers of America history series; Holy Land by D. J. Waldie, a memoir about growing up in Southern California tract housing; and Italo Calvino’s novel, Invisible Cities.
- Books about words and places: John R. Stilgoe’s Shallow Water Dictionary, an essay on the language and landscape of tidal marshes, and The Books of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon, a bibliography.
- Books on my Scandinavian heritage: The History of the Söderfors Anchor-Works, a translation of a 1791 history of the village where my Swedish ancestors lived and worked; and two histories of Stavanger, the port city on the southwest coast of Norway where another branch of my family came from. (The stories of my great-grandmother, Frida, from Söderfors, and my great-grandfather, Andreas, from Stavanger, are going into my third book. (Believing in a third book gives me the courage to complete book two.)
If I could, I’d keep all of these books open on a book-wheel, like this wonderful device (pictured right) I saw a few years ago—and surreptitiously photographed—at the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, the library established in 1646 in Puebla, Mexico. The perfect bookcase for those of us who can’t keep to just one shelf.