About the books

Dusty shelves may hold sentimental surprises

Alison Rood is a local freelance writer who doesn’t mind engaging in a sentimental ritual now and then

Every year around January I revisit the literary journey that began with Dr. Seuss, progressed to tales about heroic dogs, and eventually—when I was in my early 20s—wound its way to Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and George Eliot. I’m talking about the annual dismantling of my bookshelves for cleaning purposes. It’s an undertaking that slows as I browse through Kurt Vonnegut and sample a passage from Hermann Hesse.

Actually, I’ve never read the books by Hesse, but they remind me that dusting off books is like stirring up the ashes of an old romance. Years ago, a boyfriend named Steven gave me Steppenwolf for Christmas, along with poetry by William Wordsworth and D.H. Lawrence, before flitting off to charm someone else. A shelf filled with songbooks brings back a memory of Bob pulling out a guitar and playing “Waiting on a Friend” the day I met him. It turns out a guy with a guitar wields a little more power than a guy with a load of existential books. I managed to convince Bob to stick around, and we’ve been married for 25 years.

The novels of Barbara Kingsolver are a reminder of John, who told me I should read Animal Dreams. It was the winter of 1991, and Bob and I were struggling financially, living in a decrepit rental home with our young son. Kingsolver’s story about two sisters involved in environmental and social causes helped me survive that difficult time, but in a sad twist of irony, I never knew that John himself needed help until he took his life a few years later.

Glancing over the titles, I can’t help but think of my friend Jack, who used to stare at my bookshelves in mock horror. He accused me of reading nothing but female authors, even though it was Jack himself who introduced me to Southern fiction by Bobbie Ann Mason, Lee Smith and Kaye Gibbons.

Over the years, I’ve periodically lightened my bookshelves by donating to charity. Although I’ve given up a lot of books along the way, lately I’m gaining books in a genre I never expected to embrace: detective novels. The books by Benjamin Black, Ian Rankin and Jo Nesbo are literary enough to satisfy my craving for good writing, but I think there’s another reason they’re so addictive. I like to poke fun at my “middle-age crisis,” but my husband and I are both grappling with the fact that our sons are grown, and the family dynamic has changed. It’s possible that losing myself in murder investigations run by moody, whiskey-swilling inspectors is the therapy I need right now.

What always happens when I clean my bookshelves is that it begins as a tedious chore but inevitably becomes a sentimental ritual. I used to complain about Jack’s apartment as much as he complained about my obsession with women writers. “There’s nothing living in your apartment, Jack—no plants, no pets—just books!” But I was wrong. A room filled with books is teeming with life.