Monday, September 17, 2012

One Bookshelf: Something Old, Something New… by Julie Patterson

I am drawn to antiques (hence the barrister bookcase) and anything that loosely resembles eavesdropping on someone’s personal stories—my favorite bookshelf exemplifies both. I’ve been buying old books for two decades, though I had little understanding of what constituted “rare” or “collectible” until I met the man that is now my husband and, in turn, discovered his mother’s collection of first edition, hardcover Pulitzer Prize winners. Now I have a more discerning eye for what I want.

The first book on my shelf is, in a way, a nod to my mother-in-law’s inspiration. The Pulitzer Diaries: Inside America’s Greatest Prize by John Hohenberg (copyright 1997, first ed.) chronicles the author’s twenty-two years as the administrator of the coveted literary prize. It is as much a history lesson as it is a literary insight.

The next three books—The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald edited by Matthew Bruccoli (1978, first ed.), The Journals of Sylvia Plath edited by Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough (1982, first ed.), and A Writer’s Diary: Virginia Woolf edited by Leonard Woolf (1954, first American ed.)—have all helped me get inside the heads of some of my favorite authors. I love knowing the thinking behind the craft decisions they made.

The fifth book on the shelf is a piece of my own ever-evolving story. The plain black cover and duct-taped spine give no hint of its contents, but I inherited the New Practical Dictionary for Crossword Puzzles (1975) after my maternal grandmother died. For years I had called her for assistance with the last nagging blanks—or, more often than not, the muddled corner of obviously incorrect answers—that prevented me from finishing the daily puzzle in our newspaper. These phone calls were very formal. When she’d answer, I’d say, “Is this the Crossword Puzzle Help Line?” She’d giggle and reply, “Oh yes, it is. What can I help you with today?” We kept the conversation limited strictly to the business of crossword puzzles.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943, first ed.) is on my shelf because I am a teacher of writing—and a teacher of teachers of writing—and I am motivated in my work to “correct” and/or counterbalance teachers like Ms. Gardner who mistakenly tell young writers, like Francie, to write only what’s “beautiful.”

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940, first ed.) is one of my favorite books, and this collectible edition was an early courtship gift from my husband. (So, really, it is his fault I spend my paychecks on books; he encouraged me early on).

My copy of Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer, though not a first edition, is signed and privately printed—special, too, because it came from the famous Brattle Book Shop in Boston during my MFA graduation weekend.

The two books set horizontally, My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams (2007, first ed.) and Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (2002, first ed.), are wedding day mementoes. My husband and I combed these collections for excerpts (note the blue flags still marking some pages) that we then assembled into a dramatic reading for our reception. Three actor friends read it for us, knowing us well enough to add the appropriate emphasis to lines that most reflected who we are as a couple.

Last but not least, there is an intentional open space at the end of my shelf. I hope some day to add a few books with my own name on the front cover.
Julie Patterson is a writer and teaching artist working with students and teachers in grades K-16 in Indianapolis, Indiana. She serves as associate director and writer-in-residence for the Indiana Partnership for Young Writers, an adjunct instructor in the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, and a visiting artist for both Young Audiences of Indiana and the Indiana Repertory Theatre. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Lesley University. To learn more, visit

Monday, September 10, 2012

Keeping the Bookshelf Alive by Deng Xiang

Have you ever gazed up at the stars and thought how beautiful they looked? Sure you do. I revel in their beauty the same way I look at the tottering book stacks on my bookshelf. One book in particular that strikes my eyes is an eight-centimeter-thick, dog-eared, physics assessment book, listing recondite questions and pithy solutions that I referred to thousands of times in preparation for the grueling examinations. It will always stay on my bookshelf, a memory of my time perusing physics, an equal reminder of my determination and resilience.

My bookshelf is just as mercurial as humans. Humans are always in a state of flux, while our blood courses through the numerous blood vessels in our bodies. Similarly, my bookshelf changes monthly. Borrowed books get returned to the library once a month. Typically, I limit myself to checking out ten at a time, or else I would never be able to satiate my love for books. As I place them into the bag, causing it to bulge, I often have a paranoid feeling that others might think I’m a demented bibliophile.

At home, I dutifully place my books onto the bookshelf. If I have free time, I’ll indulge in a story, picking any of the books from random. It might be perceived as drudgery to my friends, since they habitual play online multiplayer games. I try to see it from their point-of-view, but I don't even have a mild interest in online games. I do read fantasy books, but that doesn’t mean that I play fantasy games. To me, the gory images and bloodshed induced from meaningless combats stay in the mind, and can even affect sleep. On the other hand, when I read fantasy books, equally gory at times, I get to imagine the story for myself, learn about creative writing, and also steer clear of eyesore caused by staring at the computer screen (at least with paper books).

At the end of the month, I might not finish all my borrowed books. Nevertheless, I return them to the library, and renew my favorite, undiscovered gems. Bookshelves shouldn’t be left to collect dust. Rather, they should be cleaned off and mended periodically. Although my bookshelf isn’t bedecked with glittering diamonds, or made of high-quality maple wood, what matters most is having books at my disposal, in any genre, to savor whenever there’s time. 
Bio: Deng Xiang speaks, writes articles, poems and stories while sharing his passion for all things erudite and salient. Mainly, his subsistence comprises of highbrow literature from chemistry to pure mathematics. His appetite for knowledge never ceases, even if he got an accomplishment worth showing off.