Living with Books

“Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house.”
-Henry Ward Beecher

They are piled artfully on the desk. They mount to the lampshade on the bedside table. They wobble in stacks as precarious as a loose boulder jutting over a snowy mountainscape.

Oh, yes. And they fill the bookshelves.

What would we do without them?

For the true bibliophile, nothing so beautifies a room as a healthy population of books.

One of my favorite things to do upon entering another’s home is to peruse the shelves. To run an eager eye over the titles and spines deemed worthy by the occupants to proclaim their unique passions and interests to the world. I fully believe that the books one chooses to read and display speak more eloquently than words of one’s identity. Of what moves and motivates them; of what makes them more alive. Of where their treasure is, if you will. Books are such living companions that the placing of one upon a shelf–or on a table, or leaning in a deep windowsill or even propping up a candlestick–is in many ways an invitation to that volume to take up its abode with you. It is for that reason that it is as interesting for me to stare at the bookshelves of old friends as it is of new acquaintances.  A person’s bookshelf is a window into their personhood. And it can be a magic casement, “opening on the foam of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn”.

When we renovated our den a few years back, we had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted: a William Morris-styled room with dark paneling and old, polished wood for the firelight to flicker off of. We envisioned a plate rail carefully adorned with things we “believe to be beautiful” and deep leather furniture that would envelop one like an embrace. But the most important thing about the room–the focal point about which we grouped our other ideas–was the bookcase. I wanted floor-to-ceiling shelves, like the 14-footers in my grandmother’s Victorian home. Philip saw them backed with the same rich heart-pine with which we had paneled the walls and the ceiling and laid the floor, stained a gorgeous English Chestnut like the rest of the room. And a freize at the top for a motto to express our ideals and our vision–to both of which the volumes to be housed beneath had contributed immeasurably.

Only the best for our books, was the unspoken mantra between us.

So Philip drew them out, measured about a million times for good luck, and cranked up the circular saw. For days our lives were punctuated by the wails and shrieks of cutting and the pounding of hammers and nail guns. We opened our windows in December against the fumes of the stain and polyurethane. But at last it was time for our books to come home, and we carted them down from where we had stashed them in an upstairs bedroom with the giddiness of children. I couldn’t wait to see how they would look–how alive the room would become–when we had fitted our loved volumes into Philip’s beautiful bookshelves.

“I wonder how full they will be?” I wondered as we passed each other on the stairs.

“I wonder how long it will take to fill them up?” Philip grinned.

The shelves were close to half-full and we were amazed. We didn’t realize that we had that many books.

That was five years ago.

They are full now.

My grandparents’ library shelves were full, too. And the old drug store case in the upstairs hall. And the barrister cases in the bedroom. And the low bookshelves encircling the sunporch. And the built-ins encasing the door to the back hall like an arch of triumph.

That’s just the way it is with book lovers. It’s not only hard to know when to stop. It’s impossible. But how soulless our homes would be without them!


  1. “One of my favorite things to do upon entering another’s home is to peruse the shelves.”
    I do exactly that! I think one can come to know the person a little by their selection of books…or perhaps some of their interests anyway.
    It is nice to know that I am not the only one with that leaning tower of books on my desk! *smile*
    Can’t wait to see everyone’s book shelves.

  2. My grandparents’ house is FULL of books. It has always been one of my favourite places to visit, as, after 18 years, I still haven’t worked my way through all of their bookshelves! Our house is also full of books, but we haven’t had as much time to collect them as they have! I think books give a house character. 🙂
    It was fun to see a reference to WIlliam Morris, who was born and spent his early years a few miles away from where I live! There is actually a museum devoted to his work there, though I’ve never visited.

  3. When I go to friends’ houses, my eyes are instantly drawn to their bookcases. I’ve been discovered on my knees – for a closer look at books and bindings – in front of their bookcases and I’ve been known to put my head on one side – the better to read titles – over their cups of tea. I enjoy, so very much, looking at books and bookcases – they’re a snapshot of a soul.

    I can’t wait to see the “tour” of you ladies’ bookshelves! 🙂

  4. My fiance and I (getting married a week from Friday!) are moving into a one-bedroom apartment after the wedding and our main concern is how to fit our 1500 books into the living room!

  5. Too fun! I also have filled the numerous bookshelves that my husband has built for me. He just came home today, actually, to tell me that he visited a house I would love…every avaliable wall was made into a bookshelf!


  6. Taking a look at our shelves, one might wonder why such ardent book lovers have so few. The answer: we are passionate about our local library! The books on our shelves are ones we could not borrow, as well as a few we read over and over. But, at any given time, you will find around ten glossy plastic-covered books resting on dressers, desks, and the dinner table!

    It is wonderful to be surrounded by books, whether you own them or borrow them. In my family, the library has been such a wonderful blessing to us; even when our purse is empty, worlds can open to us.

    1. Sounds like my house! A large family in a small house doesn’t leave a lot of room for books, although we’re all readers…some more bookwormish than others. But we LOVE the library. We are blessed to have access to two different county library systems. Every time I stop in the library, I take about twice as long as I intended too. It’s just too fun to stroll the isles!

      I sometimes laugh too, because our shelves aren’t actually filled with favorites. Well, we do have a favorites shelf with the Little House series, the Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings and Little Women. But most of our book spaces are filled with books that looked interesting but we couldn’t find in our local library. Many of them I’ll probably never read again, but I don’t have the heart to sell them. Because, someday, I just might have time on my hands and need a book from my own shelf!

  7. Your den sounds exactly like what I’d love. I’ve turned our living room into a combination living room-library. Come to think of it, the same is done with our both bedrooms and the home office. 🙂

    I had to laugh at my daughter when she called on her way home from a conference this weekend. Her opening words were, “I spent way too much money on books but it was worth it”. That’s my girl.

  8. I had to laugh as I read this. I have books everywhere and my collection seems to keep growing at an alarming rate. 🙂 Stacks of books on tables, under tables…books stacked so high that they almost become tables. As we prepare to move to Georgia, I thought to pare down my collection to lighten the load, but I have found it impossible. Each book once read becomes a part of you and to discard one would be to discard a part of oneself, so a bigger moving truck much be ordered! lol

    Lanier, I do so envy your bookshelves.

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