by Jean Roberta
Sitting in the room my spouse & I call “the library,” where our computer is surrounded by bookshelves, I see a hodge-podge of books, loosely organized into different categories so we can find them. (This doesn’t always work – read on.)
In what I think of as the spooky/spiritual section on the highest shelf to my left, I see a very thick paperback. The title on the spine is Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond by Hans Holzer. This book is packed with stories and photos from the files of one of the world’s foremost ghosthunters, and it threatens to suck me in again. The last time I read it, I had to stop before reaching the end so I could keep up with my day job.
Next to this is The Complete Prophesies of Nostradamus, several books on modern witchcraft, including three by Starhawk (one bought directly from her when she came to my town on tour), The Tibetan Book of the Dead (a gift from one of my stepsons), a hardcover Bible (originally bought for my six-year-old daughter, in which she drew a picture of a smiling man with a beard, named “God”) and a small, hardcover English translation of The Koran. Strangely enough, this last book is the only one in this section that I inherited from my parents after their deaths in 2009. They were agnostics who never showed a great interest in religion in any form. However, they probably thought (as I do) that as academics, they needed to have some knowledge of the holy books of the world’s major religions.
This library is very eclectic because many of the books were given to me, inherited, or they belonged to my spouse before we joined households. In some sense, it is full of ghosts that constantly threaten to pull me away from more pressing concerns.
After my parents passed away, I let my two sisters take the bulk of their books, since I already had enough of my own. Several of our mother’s books of literary criticism are now neatly arranged on the shelves in my office at the university. A few of our father’s books on political theory are still in the home library, including two by John Raulston Saul: Voltaire’s Bastards and The Unconscious Civilization. I think my father enjoyed Saul’s skeptical look at the long-term political effects of Enlightenment idealism.
I can still hear a conversation I had with my dad when he was still an Economics professor and I was still reeling from four hard months as a student English teacher in a local high school. “Has it ever occurred to you,” I asked him, “that the idea of universal education is a well-intended 18th-century plan that has never worked as it was intended to?”
“Exactly!” he replied with delight.
“But before you propose to tear down the public school system,” I said, “I’d like to know what you would put in its place.” He just laughed.
One of the books I inherited from my father is one that Spouse and I gave to him for Christmas in 2000. It’s An Illustrated History of the Royal Navy by John Winton, in association with the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth, England. It’s a big coffee-table book full of full-colour paintings, engravings and photos of ships of the British Empire and the men who sailed them. I knew my dad would like this. Ever since he joined the U.S. Navy as a young man in the Second World War, he loved boats of all kinds.
In the fiction section, I have a well-preserved hardcover copy of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, published in 1942 with detailed maps of battle zones and a foreword by eminent critic Clifton Fadiman, who points out the parallels between the Napoleonic wars of the early nineteenth century and the “current European conflict.” I inherited this book from a woman I never knew: a locally-famous hairdresser who had recently passed away, and whose family invited people she knew (including a male hairdresser friend of mine) to browse her shelves and take whatever they wanted. A grown son of the deceased woman assured me that I was welcome to take whatever was left, since the family had already made their choices.
Among Spouse’s books are several about John Lennon and Che Guevara, the two heroes of her youth, and a biography of Lenin. Her oldest books are in Spanish, and these include material on leftist political theory and alternative Christianity (for lack of a clearer term), e.g. a history of the Rosicrucians and Dan Brown-esque investigations of the history of the Catholic Church. The Spanish-language section has its own shelf.
At one time, I had a collection of books by J.R. Tolkien, including The Hobbit and all three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, including one unauthorized book that was sold openly in a bookstore in small-town Idaho. (No one seems to remember any more that in the 1960s, an American publisher brought out a pirated edition, and Tolkien sued.) When I looked for The Hobbit to skim through it before going to the second-installment movie (The Desolation of Smaug), I couldn’t find it. This isn’t surprising. It could have left my house with my grown daughter or either of my grown stepsons. If so, I won’t demand it back. I’ll just have to buy a replacement copy before the third-installment movie comes out.
Of course, there is an erotic section in my library. It’s on two bottom shelves which can be camouflaged by other objects if necessary. That section deserves a post unto itself, but I'm coming to the end of this one.
A lot of memories are in this room.