What’s on my shelves …

I’ve been picking away at that rather odious job of cleaning the bookshelves and reshelving all my books, making sure they’re in order, because that’s the kind of reader I am … This is probably also a holdover from my days as a bookseller.

Anyway, it’s a job that needs to be done, but is somewhat like painting the Sydney Bridge – when I get to the end I must start all over again from the beginning. There’s no end of dust, grime, dead insects, dead lizards (no dead mice so far, this time), cat hair, and enough cobwebs that some might consider my name to be Haversham. Plus there’s the toll the sun and seaspray take on all the covers of these books, making them a uniform colour of blue and greasy to the touch.

This chameleon was alive when I discovered his hiding spot behind the Trollopes.

This chameleon was alive when I discovered his hiding spot behind the Trollopes.

All the books must be taken down, the shelves vacuumed and scrubbed. That cute little chameleon in the photo is probably responsible for the bulk of the guano we removed today. Then each book must be dusted, wiped clean, opened, the pages fanned and wiped out, and any bookworms cleared away.


It helps if you play some good music and have an espresso to sip on. I’m allergic to dust, so I can only do this for just so long. And it’s just those first three shelves I really need the ladder … and the long arm of Pam, the housekeeper, who comes on Wednesdays and reaches much further than I can from that top step.


And it’s total disasters like this one that I’m looking for when I check and clean each book. Some of the dustcovers have made an ideal lunch for those worms that lurk inside the covers.


Fortunately only the endpapers in this book had been munched. The rest of the book was relatively clean and just the dustcover had to be thrown out.

But there is joy in this job (I keep telling myself) in revisiting all my old friends. Today I was working on shelves that held books by Michael Ondaatje to Anthony Trollope, so that includes my favourite authors, Wallace Stegner and Trollope (the number of his books have stretched to take over the entire third shelf!), authors I represented when I was a rep (like Ted Stone), or whose books I sold in the bookstores, authors who became friends (like Fred Stenson), authors I had the great pleasure to meet who signed all my copies of their books (like Mordecai Richler), authors whose books I’ve always enjoyed reading (like Vikram Seth and Nevil Shute). Then there are books from high school (Le Petit Prince en français, and my Grade 13 Penguin edition of Duddy Kravitz, still held together with an elastic band), and from university (Tolstoy, Thackery, Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, complete editions of Shakespeare and Shaw). The Book of the Month Club editions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, in boxed presentation sets, had to be defrocked of their worm-eaten dustjackets, but completely surprised me in how pristine they all still were, even after thirty-five or so years of being lugged about Canada and to the Caribbean. And the other surprise was the inclusion in each volume of Lord of the Rings of a tipped-in fold-out map of Middle-earth – copies of the original map Tolkien drew when when he first published the books. Beautiful!

With one book, I remembered a very enjoyable day spent with the author when he came to Calgary for promotion, and today I reread the lovely inscription he’d written to me when I dropped him off at his hotel. Sadly, the author committed suicide not long after that. So not all memories that surfaced this afternoon were sweetness and light.

Most of these books I’ve read at one time or another. Some (two specifically written by Wallace Stegner) I’ve reread more times than I can remember. With just about every book on those shelves I can probably tell you where I bought, why I bought, whether I’ve read, and why I’ve kept them for so long. Because many of these books have followed me around throughout my life … so it’s unlikely I’ll be getting rid of them any time soon, even if they are coated in guano and eaten by worms.

And one is a book I’ve written! I can now add a copy of Island in the Clouds up there, nestled in between Tolstoy and Trollope, as it happens … to gather dust and cobwebs and guano with all the rest of its mates.

But I must say, I do have an increased appreciation for eBooks and eReaders. After all, with one swipe of a clean cloth I remove any dirt and grime and cat hair from the entire library of books stored on the eReader. Plus, at a click, all those books are alphabetized, leaving me more time to … READ!


16 responses

  1. I think between the coffee, the view and coming across treasures, the cleaning chore would take me months!

    1. Yes, you’ve got it, JP. I began this round of cleaning when I was here last spring.

  2. bettyjanehegerat

    Lovely post, Susan. I can smell the books, hearing you sneezing and cussing under your breath, and the occasional delighted Aha! when you find an old treasure.

    1. Thank you, bjH! Unfortunately, all your books are still in storage in Calgary, but some day they will be reunited with the rest of my library.

  3. Is that a chameleon or a gecko? I think I’m allergic to dust too. Or dusting. Never sure which.

    I groaned when I got to Larence Sterne. Nightmare of a book. I’ve visited Shandy Hall though.

    1. I thought it was a chameleon. Being between the white wall and the dark brown shelves, he was a kind of tawny colour, so I assumed he just didn’t know which way to turn. Perhaps he’s Gordo the Laughing Gecko, after all.

      I read Sterne in a course I took on the development of the English novel that was taught my a medievalist who had a wry sense of humour. Great course! I think I kept copies of every book we studied that year. I still have the copy of Tom Jones that cost about CDN$2 new from the campus bookstore. When we began studying, the professor held up the book and said, “For those who buy your books by weight, this will seem to be a bargain!”

  4. Sounds like quite a chore. I donated most of my hardbacks and paperbacks to the library before we moved. I have a few treasured books, but not nearly as many as you!

    1. This is what happens when you work in the book biz and get a discount in bookstores or sales samples from the publishers … And when you become friends with so many authors whose books you just have to own.

  5. We turned our library into another bedroom when we hauled off our books after getting our ereaders. We only have a couple of shelves now. I was the last to consent. My husband used his Sony reader years before I got my iPad.

  6. Great picture and great writing.

  7. They do have cute little toes, though. I miss my bookshelves – we downsized and many of my books are still in boxes.
    Sounds like as big a job as cleaning window blinds ( and just as sneezy)

    1. Yes, those toes are cute and the chameleon has a very funny laugh when hiding behind our artwork hanging on the walls. We don’t have window blinds, though, and few glass windows …

      1. No blinds or much glass – gets rid of a lot of annoying house chores. You just have to herd chameleons

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