When most public libraries closed for months, I turned to my own book collection – adding to it, mining it, rereading it. The year of the pandemic was the year of the home library.
My office has two walls of books, and they spill out into two more bookcases in the hall. These are the riches I dreamed of as child, when visits to our tiny village library ignited a love of words. And they would sustain me in ways I could only imagine when the lockdown began during the second week of March.
At first, I had so many books backed up on my to-read list that even a pandemic seemed insufficient to get through them. I still had books to review (that supply would soon dry up) and a stack of volumes to study for my biography of Caroline Hazard.
But by May, all the pages of duty had been turned. One evening, restless and with nothing to read, I wandered upstairs to see what I could find. Scanning the shelves, I longed for a certain type of escape – into comfort and familiarity.
I turned to May Sarton.
Re-reading the journals At Seventy (1982), After the Stroke (1984) and Endgame (1992), I re-entered Sarton’s familiar world in York, Maine, where her cat Bramble and dog Tamas accompany her on winter walks; where hundreds of daffodils bloom each spring; and where the writer and poet struggles with twin impulses to engage with the world, through readings and travel, and retreat from it, writing in her upstairs studio with a view of the sea.
And so began my excursion into my own book collection. I thought I knew what I had amassed and why, but these shelves contained many surprises. Some were old favorites that still had something to say. Others had gone unread for years though I had been unwilling to part with them, as though I knew someday they would open their secrets to me at just the right time.
I had owned Dream Catcher, Margaret A. Salinger’s memoir of J. D. Salinger, since it was published in 2000. But I couldn’t get past the early chapters, which felt flat and detached, an attempt to analyze how World War II combat and years of anti-Semitism may have led her famous father to retreat from life. But now those pages came alive.
I had just spent two months with Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose diaries and letters live a few shelves way from Dream Catcher yet must have sent out invisible threads of connection. Lindbergh’s early memoirs had touched a cord within me at 14, but now I devoured all of them, from the double tragedies (the kidnapping and death of her first son, Charles Lindbergh Jr., in 1932, and her sister’s death two years later) to the World War II years, when the couple’s isolationist views made them pariahs in intellectual circles. In War Within and Without, it became clear that while Anne did not believe her husband was anti-Semitic, it is hard to defend that view today.
The Lindberghs, I discovered, not only were deeply affected by the war, they shared other commonalities with Salinger. Both were hounded by the press and retreated from public view, Salinger to New Hampshire and the Lindberghs to England and France. Both Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Salinger felt misunderstood by critics and tired of the attention and demands that publishing brought. Even more curious, the couple shared close friends with Salinger, Judge and Mrs. Learned Hand, among the few people the reclusive author let into his circle.
Other treasures awaited on my shelves. I finally finished Katherine Towler’s Snow Island trilogy, set in Rhode Island, which brought me a shelf up to Norman G. Gautreau’s novel about Maine fishermen, Sea Room. One poet’s biography, William Carlos Williams: Poet from Jersey by Reed Whittemore led to two others, The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke by Allan Seager and The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens by Paul Mariani.
Some of these neglected books were gifts. My friend Arline had given me three books in Jacqueline Winspear’s historical fiction series about Maisie Dobbs. I thought I would read them “some day” and then the pandemic turned into an endless string of “some days.” What a treasure awaited in these tales of a detective (she calls herself “a private inquiry agent”) working in post-World War I London. Winspear breaks all the writing rules with her lush descriptions, long flashbacks and recurring characters. Which is to say, she gives us everything true readers savor and editors these days frown upon.
Of course, I added to my library in 2020. Once started on Anne Morrow Lindbergh, I had to find the three of her journals I did not own. Three Maisie Dobbs mysteries led to two more (there are 15 in all – I’m going to need a bigger bookcase). In an antiques store I spotted a bright yellow cover in a box; it turned out to be Ada Clapham Govan’s charming memoir, Wings at My Window (originally published in 1940), about how bird-watching saved her from depression after the deaths of two of her three children.
Govan’s memoir sent me a few dozen books down the shelf to Gladys Taber’s The Stillmeadow Road, her classic about sharing life with her friend Jill in a Connecticut farmhouse. Filled with loving descriptions of the natural world, it is a tribute to both companionship and the quiet pleasures of solitude.
Of course, not all the books in my home library have been read. Others await rereading after long years closed. Even now, some book somewhere is sending out a tentative signal to another, whispering shared confidences. “Maybe,” it is saying, “she will discover us together.”