Friday, December 27, 2013

History in a bookcase

The contents of someone's bookcase are part of his history, like an ancestral portrait.
Anatole Broyard

Anatole Broyard
These words came to mind last night as my wife and I attended something of a wrap party hosted by the organist/choir director at the church we attend in Florida. He invited choir members to celebrate the winning Christmas Eve service of two nights before. As usual when in someone's home for the first time, I gravitated toward the bookshelves and, as Anatole Broyard suggests I might, found a history of the people, Arthur and Gretchen, who live in this beautiful home across the street from the Gulf of Mexico.

Several shelves of music books of all sorts certainly hinted at the presence of a musician within those walls, although the piano and organ in the same room suggested the same thing. Volumes in another bookcase told me these were people who valued good books and took them seriously. They were not people who simply discard books or donate them to a thrift store after reading them.

Books decades old, such as the novels by James Michener and Leon Uris, announced the library did not belong to a young person, although newer books, such as Water for Elephants, said these were not people who had yet abandoned reading for TV. These were what I consider to be quality books, the sort read by educated people with good taste and lively minds.

Although the decor of the house was exquisite, I did not get the sense the books were there for mere decoration, as one sometimes does in other attractive homes. The books seemed organized (biographies here, fiction there, etc.), yet not too organized. The library did not appear to exist for effect but for pleasure. Gretchen, a retired English teacher, later told me that most of the books are hers and that she cannot imagine ever parting with them.

Arthur showed me around the house, which he has owned for several decades. He said a contractor once recommended the building be demolished and replaced with a new home. Unable to afford a new home, Arthur made do. When he married Gretchen, she knew how to turn what had been a wreck into the showplace it is today.

One wall was covered with family photographs, not just the most recent ones but photos covering decades and telling the family story for several generations. At one point as if reading my mind, Arthur said to me that he believes every house reveals the history of the people who live there, as well as those who have lived there in the past.

Clearly there are many ways to tell one's story. Writing an autobiography is just one of them.

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