We Seattleites regularly share honors with the citizens of Minneapolis for living in the most literate American city, thanks to an annual study of urban newspaper circulation, bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment and internet resources. However, high rates of bookishness could just as easily boil down to weather: we have rain; they have snow.
In 2004, Seattle built a new central library, designed by the very cool Rem Koolhaus. We called the building, naturally, our Cool House. Opening year, I was one of dozens of docents taking thousands of admiring visitors on weekly tours of the soaring glass walls, pointing out the views of mountains and water, and threading my charges through open stacks which spiral through five continuous levels (picture a parking garage corkscrew). These days, I am one of four hundred volunteers who stage a semi-annual book sale of donated books and library cast-offs. Selling hardbacks for one dollar and paperbacks for fifty cents, these events have raised over a million dollars for the library.
The two-day book sale is housed in an abandoned airplane hanger, appropriate for Seattle. Add coffee and a laptop and we’ve fulfilled everyone’s cliché of a Seattle event. We volunteers gathered on the last Friday this past September to arrange 200,000 books spine-up on hundreds of long tables marked with homemade wooden signs labeled by subject category. I spent most of my time setting up history, gender issues, and biography. I noticed an inordinate number of Princess Diana books — maybe we’re finally over her? As a small guerrilla action, I removed all the copies of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces from the biography section and put them in fiction.
Volunteers may take any two books for free and are allowed to buy six more during their shifts. This is a wonderful benefit as the sale itself is extremely crowded with long check-out lines. After about an hour of sorting and arranging, I’d already set aside twelve books I didn’t think I could live without. Clearly over my limit, I removed myself from temptation by working in the Slavic and Russian language section, where I couldn’t read the titles, let alone the books.
The agony of decision! It’s still a painful memory to think of the books I had to let go, as a fisherman regrets the ones that got away. One I regretfully released was Bulwer-Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii, which looked like great fun, especially since I have recently finished pasting all our family travel pictures from Pompeii into a photo album — I love those red and black frescoes of the winged cherubs pouring wine from elegant amphorae as large as they are.
What treasures did I keep from my shift? Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade. I’ve long admired her biography of Florence Nightingale and expect her treatment of the Light Brigade to be equally intelligent and readable. Others were MFK Fisher’s Among Friends, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s selected letters, a biography of Bess of Hardwick, Consuelo Vanderbilt’s autobiography, Carolyn Heilbrun’s Hamlet’s Mother, the letters and journals of a Wyoming settler from 1905-1910 for a friend of mine with Wyoming roots, and a very small volume of essays titled Are Women Human? by Dorothy L. Sayers.
And what am I reading right now? The Brothers K by David James Duncan, and E.M. Forster’s Commonplace Book.
Looking at a person’s book collection says a lot about them. Go figure.