On the shelves
SHUFFLING THROUGH other people’s houses and peering at their bookshelves may not be everyone’s idea of a fun Saturday — but it did appeal to me, and to my 23-year-old son, and to a surprising number of other people who showed up for a recent tour of private libraries in Concord. The streets in front of the participating houses were lined with parked cars; the doorsteps were scattered with shoes; and the rooms were thronged with people in stockinged feet pausing in front of the shelves, silently scanning titles or whispering to a companion, “I have that,’’ or “Oh, Alice Munro — I love Alice Munro.’’
In the course of the afternoon, we saw libraries that were studies where people worked, libraries that were big sitting rooms lined with books, libraries in hallways and dining rooms and family rooms, libraries that meandered and libraries that soared. We saw a serene self-contained cottage — you walked out of the main house and across an apple orchard to get to it — furnished with a piano, a sofa, and a big wall of books. We saw a rich, dark, quiet library housed in what had once been a three-car garage. We saw a lot more libraries than we did houses, since virtually every house had more than one room that was filled with books and open to the public. And then there were the closed doors and politely cordoned-off staircases, and the sense that beyond those barriers were other private rooms filled with more books - bedside tables that must be piled with recent fiction, guest room shelves stuffed with junky mysteries, kids’ rooms lined with Harry Potter or, if the kids were kids a long time ago, maybe Tom Swift and Arthur Ransome and Daddy-Long-Legs.
In some ways, the library tour was weird and awkward, and it should not have worked. Reading, after all, is a solitary activity. It’s between you and the book, and no one in the crowd of visitors touched a book in any of those libraries. So what was the appeal?
Well, snooping was part of it. Just as a garden tour lets you walk through backyards that are hidden from the street, a library tour invites you to look into physical and psychological spaces that are ordinarily private - not just the actual rooms that hold the books, but the minds and souls of the people who have assembled the collections. We saw bound sets of Thackeray and Victor Hugo inherited from parents and grandparents. We saw Stieg Larsson nestled in with esoteric volumes on the history of philosophy. In a house packed with books on every conceivable subject, we saw one shelf whose height and contents clearly, enticingly, said, “Grandchild, this is yours.’’ And in all the houses we saw the deep, passionate collections that reflect the individual interests - and professional careers - of their owners, historians and biographers, legal and medical scholars, publishers.
Talking in the car as we drove from house to house, my son and I agreed that one of the day’s big pleasures was spotting a quirky personal favorite — Guy Sajer’s “The Forgotten Soldier,’’ or John Marquand’s biography of Newburyport eccentric Lord Timothy Dexter — on a stranger’s shelf. We also agreed that we couldn’t wait to get home to look at all our own books again.
I get angry and discouraged whenever I see a story predicting — or worse, recommending — the demise of the printed book. Electronic content is more efficient, more economical, and more compact, such stories argue. What I would argue back is: A book is more than just content. It is heft; smell; design; typeface; the texture, weight, and color of the paper; the sticker on the back cover from the bookstore in France where you bought it; the wrinkled pages that remind you that you read most of it in your old boyfriend’s bathtub.
And that, really, was the point of the library tour. It was an event put on by book people for book people — something we need more of at a time when non-book people seem increasingly eager to tell us we are fusty and impractical and obsolete. I came away from the library tour feeling that it was a signal flare set off to ask the question, “Are you out there?’’ And we showed up — crowds of us — and said, “Yes, we are.’’
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is www.joanwickersham.com.