Vol. 113 (2022)

Home. Library.

By Susan Wilson

Guest Columnist

Oak Bluffs, MA, USA


Three to four times a week I attend a Zoom exercise class. As my home office has the only adequate floor space, I get to spend a half hour on my back, or on all fours, or crunching into an awkward vee in front of my overcrowded bookshelves. Two things have resulted. One, I’m in pretty good shape and, two, I’ve discovered books I’d forgotten we ever had. There is nothing quite like doing leg raises or bridges and noticing an unread autobiography of Vera Zorina or Arthur Miller (bottom shelf) or a cherished novel gifted to me by a friend decades ago (middle shelf). As our Covid-19 afflicted world shrank, I looked at the shelves with new eyes. This array of books has long been my backdrop, even before Zoom.

My Home Office Bookcases

My office boasts two tall built-in bookshelves and one glass front bookcase that holds our first editions and precious—or sentimental—collections. We also have a built-in in the living room They are all full – books squeezed together so tightly you can’t get them out, books stacked in front of books and slipped in horizontally on top of still other books. I have to mention that in a previous life my retired educator husband was a bookseller and unrepentant book collector which means our shelves offer a wide variety of non-fiction, poetry, British history, classroom paperbacks and oddities along with my favorite novels and growing collection of works by author friends. Books for research, books borrowed and never returned; even books that I’ve written.


During the long period of enforced isolation and public library closures this rediscovery of my own library was a blessing and a journey. At the beginning of the pandemic with the library firmly shuttered and not yet allowing for curbside pickup I began to pick books off the shelf that I had read so many years ago that it was like I’d never read them at all. I also pulled books that I’d always meant to read, like Winston Churchill’s magnum opus, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Truthfully, I’d never really had the inclination to read this three-volume set (part of my husband’s collection of British histories) and, full disclosure, I didn’t get too far. All that imperialism was a bit much to swallow.


Much more fun was to read Hilary Mantel’s magnificent trilogy on Thomas Cromwell beginning with rereading the first two, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. As she had just released the concluding novel, I thought it was a great idea to reread the preceding books first so that my memory would be fresh when it came to the last volume. It was like binge watching a Netflix or HBO series—only better. And that meant I didn’t have to delve too deeply into Churchill’s much drier version of Tudor machinations.

Susan Wilson

That undertaking filled hours and hours during our early unmoored weeks, and afterwards I kept going, browsing through novels, biographies, memoir, travel. I even reread my own What A Dog Knows, albeit as third pass editing. What’s surprised me is not only the depth of our collection, but how many I hadn’t actually read. The other thing that surprised me was that a number of books that I had really enjoyed decades ago, I didn’t like today. Bonfire of the Vanities just didn’t cut it anymore. We live in a different era, and I realized in rereading it, that Tom Wolfe actually didn’t like any of his characters. No one was a hero; no one I cared to root for. The first time I read that book was at a point in life when we were eking our way through adulthood, raising kids, trying out different jobs, figuring out how to juggle it all. The book worked for me at that time maybe because it was just enough outside of my own experience to be entertaining. Fast forward thirty years plus, and our present is different. Our world is different. We’ve seen the reality of Bernie Madoff and the collapse of the stock market under the weight of junk bonds. Rapacious greed is no longer entertaining to me. Plus, I prefer to root for the protagonist.


Other books held fresh new enjoyment, a reigniting of the love affair a reader has with an author, and I fell back in love with the works of Ernest Hebert. His poignant stories of hardscrabble folks just trying to survive in the fictional Darby, New Hampshire, remain as enjoyable today as they did back when I first encountered them. The same with the works of Barbara Kingsolver and Kate Atkinson. Rereading them is just delightful, appreciating anew a turn of phrase or a deeper empathy with characters.


My Zoom exercise class will often get me into a position where I spot a book I had no idea we owned. Sometimes I pull it off the shelf and try it out, then put it back. Sometimes it grabs me and makes the journey downstairs to the living room, added to the pile on the coffee table of queued up books-to-be-read. It’s possible that I’ve been doing more reading during these past many months, but probably not. I’ve just been more catholic in my choices, queuing up as much non-fiction as fiction.


I have a friend who always keeps two books going, most often both fiction. What she refers to as her upstairs book and her downstairs book. My default position was always to finish one thing—book, project, task—before moving onto the next. However, what I have begun to do recently is to read a novel and something non-fiction. Mind blown. For instance, at this moment, I’m reading a romance borrowed from the library and A History of the Wife by Marilyn Yalom that has been taking up space on the downstairs bookshelf for 20 years. I can dip into the fascinating evolution of marriage from a contractual transaction to a companionate ideal and then plunge into the romance as a kind of sorbet after a heavy meal. Admittedly, I wouldn’t attempt an academic history and anything literary at the same time.


Periodically I turn to other sources when nothing on my own shelf appeals. When our town library finally decided it was okay to offer curbside, I thought, great! But then was faced with the obstacle of being unable to truly browse. What greater pleasure is there than wandering through the stacks? Choosing a different chunk of the alphabet to examine for an exciting title or new book from an old favorite (or old book from a new favorite)? How do you properly do that on-line? And any book that was mentioned in the Review of Books or as an Amazon pick or by a friend was always always on request by a thousand other equally interested readers. Sometimes it took so long to get the book that I’d requested, I’d forgotten that I’d asked for it.


Fortunately, thankfully, bookstores came back to ordinary, if masked, browsing. At first, like so many, I was skeevey about going in, touching, etc. But, book thirst conquers much and soon enough I had made a couple of successful forays into in-person book browsing. It felt amazing.


At long last we’ve gone from the severe isolation of the early days and into something more workable. As our library now allows in-person browsing, I find that I don’t reach into our own collection quite as often to find something to read. What I’ve come to is a nice routine—something from our shelves, then a pile from the library; a novel that a friend has read and passed along and then back to our collection.


I’ve also started the long overdue process of bookshelf weeding, or maybe "editing" is a better term. Our shelves have books in front of books. So I began pulling books I know I won’t be rereading and those that have literally outlived their shelf life and fall apart when opened.

Maple bookcases from my childhood home

And just when I finally make myself take a hard look at thinning the ranks, I adopt a pair of short bookcases from my sister who took them when we broke up my mother’s house. These maple bookcases don’t have adjustable shelves, are almost too narrow to hold an average hardcover but are a part of my childhood and I couldn’t not take them when she downsized. Maybe it’s my sentimental imagination, but I believe that I can remember exactly what books I had on those shelves. A Child’s Garden of Verses, a stack of comic books; The Bobbsey Twins series. My beloved Collier’s ten volume Junior Classics that currently take up space on the built-ins. Maybe I should move those to the maple bookcase … which, of course, will free up a good foot of shelf space so that I can be less aggressive about thinning the ranks.

My collection of Collier Junior Classics

I’m not sure when—or whether—our exercise class will go back to in-person. We seem to have become quite happy with the status quo. I’m grateful that our instructor has developed this for her "squad" as she lovingly calls us; and grateful that having done so I’ve rediscovered the depth of our home library. Now I should think about dusting.



(Susan Wilson photo credit: Mark Alan Lovewell)


Susan Wilson



Susan Wilson is a New York Times bestselling author of twelve novels.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.