The Universal Notebook: A ton of books

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The room where I work contains a computer desk and chair, a fold-out sofa, a work desk, and seven large bookshelves jammed with books. And that’s not counting the two-shelf bookcase where the field guides to caterpillars, dragonflies, birds, wildflowers, mushrooms, trees, seashells, and insects and spiders live.

Even though I weeded out a dozen boxes of books before we moved to Brunswick eight years ago, the movers who horsed the remaining boxes out of the old house and into the new estimated that we had more than a ton of books.

Edgar Allen BeemThere are also bookshelves in the living room and in two of the upstairs bedrooms. I’m guessing we have about 2,000 books in the house.

I buy a lot of books for my lovely wife Carolyn to share with our three grown daughters, her sister, and our sister-in-law. Once they find an author they like, they tend to devour them. The list of eat-’em-alive authors in recent years has included Amor Towles, Maggie O’Farrell, Sally Rooney, Colm Toibin, Elizabeth Strout, Jeannette Walls, Fredrik Bachman, and Louise Penny.

Personally, I have a tendency to reread old favorites like John Updike, Albert Camus, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Samuel Beckett, and the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, and Emily Dickinson.

In selecting books for my family, I keep my eye on reviews, awards, and booklists just as I did back in the 1970s when I helped select the adult circulating collection at the Portland Public Library. When not manning the circulation desk, I’d squirrel myself away in the closed stacks with recent issues of Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews, reading reviews and recommendations and checking off prospective new titles to add to the collection. 

It was part of my job to fill out order cards and pass them along to my boss for the ultimate OK. At one point in the 1970s, I liked to say that I spent more on books than anyone in Portland. 

Shortly before the new library opened on Monument Square in 1980, I was dispatched to the New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton, Massachusetts, with instructions to buy a vanload of paperback novels to stock the new carousel racks. (Boy, was that a waste of money.)

My own library is heavy on art books, catalogs and monographs, photography, architecture, literary fiction, Maine history, natural history, and children’s books. At one point, when I was more active as a reviewer, we also had dozens and dozens of review copies stacked everywhere. That’s mostly what I jettisoned in advance of the move.

I like to think of myself as a supporter of local libraries and bookstores, but I’m afraid I’m guilty of succumbing to Amazonian temptation during the pandemic.

Amazon was the perfect business for an economy in quarantine, providing free overnight shipping of just about anything. Amazon profits soared while we were all shut in, as did those of Zoom, DoorDash, and Netflix.

I know I should have focused more on supporting local independent bookstores, but while they were mostly closed I became addicted to Amazon. Local bookstores just couldn’t compete on price, speed, selection, or convenience. I averaged a book a week from Amazon during 2020 and 2021.

Now I am under orders from she who must be obeyed to curb my book-buying enthusiasm. It’s not just that Carolyn is more frugal than I am. She also has a backlog of unread books piling up on her side of the bed.

Time to start weeding again.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.