Monday, September 17, 2018

The Upstairs Shelves

Yes, this is a terrible picture. A failed picture, really.

I took it almost 40 years ago, with my little point-and-shoot Magimatic camera and 126 cartridge film. It shows some bookshelves in my grandparents' house in Hyattsville, Maryland. I was trying to show the wonderful jumble on those shelves, with the books going every which way and rolled-up maps and random shreds of yellowed paper.

(By the way, don't ever store your books like this!)

I was reminded of this picture while reading Knausgaard. (I'm sorry I keep bleating on about this book but it's been quite thought-provoking. Fortunately I finished it yesterday, so this is the last you'll hear of him for the time being.) He describes cleaning out his grandmother's house following his father's death, and the chaos of stuff he encounters in every room. His grandmother's house was horrifically and disastrously messy -- my grandmother, by contrast, may not have been a meticulous housekeeper but she was basically clean.

I had to dig up this negative and scan it to get this image, having thrown out the print long ago. These shelves were on the second floor of the house, in a bedroom loft at the top of the stairs. It was mostly a storage area, where we kids slept when we visited. A huge box fan in the ceiling overhead drew fresh air through the house and served as the only air conditioning, aside from two strategically placed window units downstairs.

I loved those upstairs rooms, with their mysterious boxes and drawers, their venetian blinds and chests of old blankets and stacks of ancient National Geographic and Opera News magazines. The rooms had a distinct old-paper smell, not at all unpleasant. It was fun to browse the bookshelves and see what we could find -- paperback copies of "Christy" by Catherine Marshall and "A Woman of Substance" by Barbara Taylor Bradford, tucked amid older books by Stefan Zweig and Norman Vincent Peale. In the photo I see two James Michener paperbacks; Kenneth Davis's "Soldier of Democracy," a biography of Dwight Eisenhower; a ruined copy of "Masada"; a children's book called "The Blue Birds of Happy Times Nest" that must have belonged to my mother and uncle when they were young; some ancient physics textbooks; the "Modern Handbook for Girls," which it's hard to imagine either my mother or grandmother ever reading; and a book of inspirational poetry called "It Can Be Done."

After my grandmother died in 1989, my mother and uncle sold her house. They took what they wanted but left behind a lot of the furnishings, and I suspect what's in that picture went with the house and is almost certainly long gone.

I only have one item from my grandparents' upstairs bookshelves, and it's actually from a different bookcase than the one in the picture. It's this incongruously hip paperback of cartoons from 1959.

They're mildly funny -- more interesting for their time-capsule quality than their humor. I think the book belonged to my uncle when he was a teenager. I should let him know I have it. He'd probably get a kick out of that.

Anyway, even though it's blurry and badly exposed, maybe the picture isn't entirely a failure. It definitely evokes memories of those haphazard shelves, and it popped into my head immediately as I read Knausgaard's account of his own grandmother's house.


  1. A chaotic book shelf like that - it's as if your grandparents' inner lives had spilled out into the physical world. Every book, every piece of paper said something about who they were, their interests and aspirations. A lovely blogpost which I very much enjoyed.

  2. It is not a failed image! I would love to rummage around among those books & documents. Every single item would have meant something to your grandparents.
    As for Knausgaard, after reading a magazine interview he gave, I'm not inclined to read anything he has written. He looks just as demented as his grandmother. And entirely self-focused.

  3. I love that book! The beatniks were the gateways to the hippies, I believe. How cool! (And we'd not be using the word "cool" if it wasn't for the beatniks!)
    If I were my children, I'd be living in fear that their mom and dad might die instantly and together and then they'll have to deal with all of our stuff with no guidance and they probably all have a secret plan to get the jewelry out and then torch the place. I would.

  4. oh yeah, the beatniks, definite gateway to hippies. what amazes me is that you even remembered taking the picture and then could find the negative!

  5. I am trying to get my house in a condition so that somebody doesn't have to do too much to bring an end to me and my possessions.

  6. That's such a great photo. You had quite the eye for details way back then too. Love that book too. The beatniks were my role model, and well now that I think about, they still are.

  7. This brought back many memories for me too! When I saw the term "venetian blinds" I could immediately picture the blinds in our house when I was a kid. They were made of wood or some kind of thick material. I hadn't thought about them in years. I also remembered my grandfathers apartment filled with books. In fact, I think it was his apartment that inspired in me to love reading. That smell of old paper combined with a faint smell of pipe tobacco smoke made me feel safe and secure. Thanks for the memories.

  8. There have been two bookstores in this area whose books are shelved like this. One of them is gone, thankfully, and I haven't visited the other one in years. BTW, I heard that Volume 6 (the last one) of Knausgaard's life story is being published today!

  9. My grandmother had some bookshelves that fascinated me as a child. One had a lot of my aunt's children's books - Heidi, Trixie Beldon, the Bobbsey Twins...

    Man this is making me start dreading the day when my father dies. He's in excellent health, but it's his 78th birthday today & sometime in the next 20 years I'll probably have to face cleaning out his house. I like Ms. Moon's idea!

  10. Your grandparents had eclectic tastes in reading material! Old photos can bring back forgotten memories in a flash. And not just images, but smells and sounds and other sensory experiences. Little windows to the past.

  11. what a treasure trove of literature , up the stair, and I know that smell of paper, It is pleasant. We have been unloading books regularly, it is interesting the ones we keep, usually the ones with lots of pictures and big print. Good kid's books are the most difficult to get rid of , I find.
    You certainly landed where you belong, England in a library, in a walking city!

  12. Omg, you mentioned so many of the books I plucked from my own grandparents shelves and read when I was a teenager, A Woman of Substance and Michener in particular bring back memories of lying on the cool palazzo tiles in their library and reading for hours. Now that you mention it, I loved poking around their library shelves, too! This post has unearthed some memories.