Over the last few months, thanks to COVID-19, I’ve gotten to see inside a lot of people’s houses. Their offices and bedrooms, living rooms and kitchen tables and back porches have all been made readily available to me through the magic of videoconferencing. I’m thankful I’ve been able to work from my library—not only because it’s a space I cultivate and enjoy, but also because it seems to delight other people.
But not all bookcases are created equal according to a brilliant Twitter account, Bookcase Credibility (@BCredibility), which bears the tagline, “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you.” They have a wonderful time analyzing bookshelves behind people during interviews and online chats, often rating them based on a variety of factors and creating delightful reviews as palate pleasing as a well-crafted amuse bouche.
That got me to thinking about my own bookcases and what I display on them. What do the volumes I’ve chosen to keep over a lifetime say about me? Do I have too many? (As if that was possible!) Too few? Do they say my reading style is academic, eclectic, or common?
When my husband’s parents were up for the Fourth of July, my mother-in-law commented (without judgment, mind you) that I own a lot of Dean Koontz books. She’s right. I do. Sixty-two to be precise. A mix of new hardcover volumes and dog-eared paperbacks collected over a lifetime. (The only author that comes close is Stephen King at a robust 45, though I’ve likely read his entire oeuvre thanks to libraries.)
Some people might look at the three shelves, his exclusive real estate, and pass judgment on me. Perhaps they’d take me less seriously because of my love for a popular author instead of someone like Proust. (However, I will have it said that I own Swann’s Way and have plans to read it sometime soon. I just have to work up the nerve.)
But down on the other end from Mr. Koontz are two entire bookcases of classics I read when I was in college earning and working as an English teacher—everything from Kobo Abe to Richard Wright. I have one shelf devoted to modern and classical poetry. Another to drama. Epics. Memoirs. Theology. Biographies. Histories. Books about writing. Heck, I even have books about books. And I love all of them. Each has taught me something, helped frame and mold me in some way.
But Dean Koontz was there first.
When I was growing up, my family moved a lot—roughly every two years. It was hard to make friends and even harder to keep them in the pre-internet age. We often moved in the summer to avoid losing momentum at school, but it also meant that each time we came to a new city, my brother and I had a three-month long wait before we could start making friends and fitting in. Sometimes, we found a few neighborhood kids to pal around with, but more often than not we were on our own. So we spent a lot of time at the movies and, you guessed it, reading books.
Each time we relocated, my library was the last thing to be packed up and the first thing set out. It was a soothing process for me, collapsing and reconstructing the wall of safety I’d created for myself, and Dean Koontz was among the most reliable of my brick masons. When my life was messy or I felt half-crazed, I could fall into one of his novels and forget for an hour or two.
I read widely as a child, but there were some days when I just wanted the comfort Watchers had to offer or the romantic wonder of Lightning. Whether it was Twilight Eyes, Phantoms, or Whispers, I could always count on plenty of entertaining twists, and though evil might have the upper hand for a time, good would always prevail (often thanks to a Golden Retriever). That was important to an overweight, bookish girl like me who had to put herself out there over and over again. I had to believe in the goodness of people if I was going to make it, and Mr. Koontz helped me do that.
Since those challenging days, I’ve gobbled down countless books. I’ve read Moby Dick, Ulysses, Anna Karenina, and The Count of Monte Cristo. I’ve long loved Jane Eyre, The Scarlet Letter, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Gatsby. I cried reading Frankenstein and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, been thrown into harsh reality by Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451, and escaped into both Middle Earth and Narnia. Thanks to a beloved professor at the University of North Florida, I’ve even read The Canterbury Tales in Middle English (and can still recite most of the prologue, which is always a big hit a parties).
But Dean Koontz will always have a special place in my heart (and on my shelves) because he was there on some hard days, the ones where I had to leave a house I liked or a town where I’d managed to finally fit in. I’d look through the rear window and sigh, thinking about how unfair life could be, but before we hit the interstate, I’d have one of his novels open, my eyes scanning silently left to right as the miles rolled around on the odometer of our Buick Regal and we eventually arrived at whatever place happened to be next on the agenda.
I never judge a book by its cover or its owner by the books he or she chooses to display. On the contrary, I think shelves contain an even greater story than any you find in the tomes that reside there. Together, they tell a person’s truest narrative: who she once was, who she is, and who she is becoming. They represent joy and sorrow, love and loss, the places where she got confused and where she found herself again. If you look at them the right way (and ask the right questions), you’ll get to know a person more intimately than a decade’s worth of conversation could manage to provide.
** If you’d like to see the library in all its glory, here’s a quick video. The music you hear is the peerless J.J. Johnson on trombone. **