On Reading the Library

When I was a kid, my elderly grandparents came to visit every Sunday afternoon, driving up in their yellow Volkswagen Beatle; with them they invariably brought several volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.

Shelves and shelves of these

Finally, my father built a bookshelf to accommodate them all, and because I was a bit neurotic even then, I put them all in order by date, and then read them from spring of 1960 forward.  That meant four condensed books per season per year, for all the years my grandparents had been collecting them.  Of course, there were also the bonus volumes they apparently received for being such good customers:  several volumes of condensed classics for all times, and various other sets.  It was a treasure trove of sorts, albeit somewhat indiscriminate.  Some of the books I did not like.  Some I did not understand.  Some I loved and went back to, once I’d read all the volumes we had.  Some I took out of the public library in their non-condensed forms, and carefully compared, to see what had been edited out of existence by Reader’s Digest:  that was an interesting activity, though perhaps another form of neurosis.

After all these years, and all the times I’ve moved house, the Reader’s Digest collection is no more; those volumes have been replaced by books I’ve purchased or been given since I began to develop my own reading taste.  My father’s bookcase graces the living room of my present house, and keeps company with a wall-to-wall bookshelf I built myself.  There are other shelves in other rooms:  dining room, computer room, bedrooms.  All are filled with books I’ve read and opted to keep as my own.  My book neuroses remain, however, though they have taken on other forms.

The old library

A case in point:  the closest library to my home is the Newport Public Library, about fifteen miles away.  For many years, this library was housed in a squat brick building with an open plan:  children’s section to the right of the librarian’s desk, adult section to the left.  For five bucks a year, my children and I were granted access to all the riches this tiny place had to offer.  I don’t know what made me start, in taking advantage of this opportunity, to read the adult section alphabetically.    Upon entering the half of the room, I simply began at the nearest shelf, immediately to my left, at the top.  I took out seven books per week, reading them one a day, moving down the first set of shelves, then on to the next; around the corner past the front windows, back up the far side, and to the rear, and that took care of the fiction; the non-fiction was on the free-standing shelving that marched down the middle of the room (I have to admit that, as I had read the large-print editions in their smaller-print counterparts, I skipped over that shelf).  It took me a couple of years.  I found that, for the most part, the Newport Public Library pandered to readers of mysteries (my personal guilty pleasure) and romances (which I can’t stand).  There were few, if any, of the books I read about in The New Yorker or in any of the other book reviews I came across in the outside world, though occasionally I would stumble upon a gem, such as Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

Marilynne Robinson

I got hung up for a while with the books of Father Andrew Greeley (the writer of some of the greatest airport reads ever), mainly because he seems to have written half a million novels, and the library had them all.  I found that I simply could not stomach John Updike, which in a weird sort of way made me feel un-American; but I just couldn’t get into the middle-aged upper-middle-class Ivy-League-educated white guy ethos.

When I was done with the Newport Public Library, I felt bereft.  Rootless.  I re-organized the book closets at school, then read everything in them.  I read the Central High School Library, but that didn’t take long, as it’s very small, and I’d read nearly everything in it already.  I toyed with the idea of starting on the Bangor Public Library, but that was really too far away to work out, as I couldn’t get there on a regular basis.  Then a miracle happened:  Newport built a new “cultural center”

Newport Cultural Center

to house both the library and the historical society; with much more room, the library was able to take more of its books out of storage.  I started the alphabetical circle again, taking out books which hadn’t been available before, skipping over the ones I’d already read (with the occasionally disappointment when I’d find, upon bringing my seven books home, that I’d inadvertently taken out one I’d read before–easy to do with some of the more pedestrian writers).  One afternoon I came home with a Roddy Doyle,

Roddy Doyle

The Woman Who Walked into Doors, which I was surprised to have found on that library’s shelves, Doyle not being a sought-after author in the Newport canon; I discovered upon closer examination that the novel had been donated by the Spruce Run Women’s Shelter.  Some more Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich

appeared–another happy surprise.  Strangely, more Andrew Greeley

Father Andrew Greeley

showed up on the shelf, as though the books were procreating–which would no doubt make Father Andrew happy, as he is the most erotic novelist priest ever, as long as all sex is for the glory of God.  Ken Follett broadened his presence on the shelves as well; I always thought he’d be a fast read if he ever wrote a novel shorter than 2000 pages.

On this, my second time reading the Newport Public Library alphabetically, I am still on the F’s and G’s.  From the looks of things, it’s going to take me at least another year at the rate I’m going to get to the Z’s.  I’m looking forward to the I’s, because I looked ahead and saw a number of different John Irvings, and he’s always a fun guy.  Still, the New York Times bestseller list is sparsely represented, and the books reviewed in The New Yorker are rarely there at all.  But at least this time through I’ll get to skip John Updike.


  1. Hmm. I like Updike, at least some Updike. Not all of it, to be sure. But Baron hates him. We have arguments.


  2. Also, I did the same thing with my grandparents’ Readers’ Digest condensed books. Remember all the Mrs. Pollifaxes? And the Micheners? A condensed Michener is probably an improvement over the full-length original.


    • Mrs. Pollifax was one of my mother’s favorites. In general, she hated the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.


  3. Molly Cathleen Tobey

    You could always, when you’ve finished, send out for books from other libraries. When I’m reading a series I usually have to do this, as a book I am looking for is out or the library just doesn’t have it. We’ve all gotten library cards at Pittsfield now, even Ian. They have also just expanded. So exciting.

    And no, I really cannot see you reading the romances. Did you really?


  4. Jenny D

    My method is far more haphazard. Because I am so lousy at returning library books on time, I go to GoodWill and buy whatever takes my fancy there for a dollar or so a go.


    • Sometimes I just go to your house and read the books off your shelves, too. ; )


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