books,  dreams,  family,  introspection,  writing

The Top Shelf

This post was written for the Cherished Blogfest, which invites the writer to write a short post about a cherished object.  See the other participants and discover some new blogs!

Some of my Grandmother's books.
Some of my Grandmother’s books.

My mother arrived outside my Queens apartment, the trunk of her aqua Hyundai Accent packed to the brim with books. But these were not ordinary books.  These were the classics, in cheap hardback covers, that my grandmother had ordered through the mail, one at a time as she could afford them. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Twain formed the bulk of the horde, with one-off novels from other authors like Dickens and Mitchell and Charlotte Bronte.   I’d stared at their gilted bindings most of my childhood, just waiting for the day when I would be able to read and truly appreciate them, instead of having to stop every paragraph or two to look up words I didn’t yet know.  (Grapes of Wrath…my twelve-year-old self is still intimidated by you.)  And now, my mother was giving them to me.

I grew up in the kind of place where people left their stolen shopping carts on the sidewalk and radios blared staticky commercials late into the night.  The first apartment that we lived in when we moved back to the States had to be abandoned when used syringes were found at the playground and prostitutes were discovered working out of the basement storage units, a few short feet from where I did our family’s laundry.  When we moved out, our apartment was taken over by the local neighborhood watch as a command station.  Whenever I think of that place, I still imagine their intent faces peering out the same square window that once was my entire view of the world.

The neighborhood that we moved to was better.  It was another long street of apartment complexes, but  the top of the street bled off into an estate of modest houses.  At the time, I thought the people that lived up there were rich beyond measure, because they had private walls and a yard, and I used to roam those streets for hours at a time, dreaming of what it must be like to live in such opulent wealth.  At Christmas time and Hallowe’en, I would jealously dream while I admired the beauty of their decorations.  I imagined refinement and culture behind those closed doors, then returned home to the sticky shared entrances of the apartment buildings where we lived and to the neighborhood children that responded quickly and viciously to any sign of studiousness.

And yet, books were my favorite thing.

I couldn’t escape my thrift-shop clothes or the skin that couldn’t fit in, but in the pages of books, I could learn to be anyone.  I studied them hungrily, looking for a the clues on how to behave to get myself to a place where I could walk down the street without the harassment of men twice my age.  My grandmother’s books seemed like the key to a future of wealth and culture, an entree into neighborhoods that were beautiful and safe. Somehow, I knew that the people that lived in those houses had all read Hemingway.

I never found the key to the secrets that I was looking for, but all that reading paid off; I landed in a high school program that put me in the same classroom as the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers.  It was what I had always wanted, wasn’t it?  And yet, I discovered that I didn’t feel at home there, among so much casual wealth.  While their parents took them to private lessons and bought them cars for SAT performance, I juggled an extraordinary academic load with my after-school and weekend jobs. One of my first boyfriends belonged to a family that kept horses, who I met in the same year that our cat died after falling off our 9th floor balcony. When it became obvious that my new school friends were afraid to go to my house, I avoided theirs, because I felt like I was selling out my childhood friends.

I still feel bad about this.  Can anyone recommend someone to fix this?
I still feel bad about this. Can anyone recommend someone to fix this?
I no longer belonged at home or at school, and the consolation was fiction.  I tried again with my grandmother’s books, but when I broke the binding of Gone with the Wind as I neared the final pages, I became too afraid to touch any of the other books in the collection.  They were too delicate for my teenaged hands, so I waited until my mother gave them to me as an adult to try reading them again.  Now I carefully carry them in my commuter bag, cherishing them for the family history that they hold.  In a world where books are increasingly less tangible, they are a luxury, a treasure that can be touched and smelled and held.

Published in the 50s and 60s, their typeface and binding instantly throws me back in time, to a place before cell phones and cable TV and Internet speed.  I envision my family — a well-educated and argumentative bunch — reading these books as they sprawled over couches and floors.  I imagine my mother as a young woman, inscribing her name inside the cover of each book with a blue ballpoint pen. She wrote the date — 1977.  Now that they are mine, I wonder if I should write my name too.

Some Reviews from The Top Shelf:

A Moveable Feast
For Whom the Bell Tolls


  • kritsayvonne

    Great piece of writing! Yes, do inscribe your name, it could become a fabulous family tradition as you hand those books on to another generation. I love the classics and worry that without knobs, buttons or apps the joy of holding a book and transporting yourself to another place is lost to far too many children. X

  • ccyager

    Hi, Ordinary Canary! I found your blog via Cherished Blogfest and really enjoyed your post for the blog hop. I agree! I cherish books, too, and collect them. I buy books, lots of them at once, intending to read all of them all at once. Then I arrive home to the realization that I can read only one at a time, even though I may start three. Piles of books everywhere in my apartment. Lately, due to financial issues, I’ve been trying to use my local library more instead of buying books. It’s hard! And then I need to sell some of my library to help pay bills. It’s so hard! (smile) It’ll work out, I know, and I’ll survive……

  • pathbreakingwriter

    I certainly love such collections and since I was a literature student I used to have F. Scott Fitzgerland, Twain, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen in my syllabus. My favorite classic is Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, both written by Jane Austen and The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald.


    Really lovely! I cherish books too and have a few of those bound classic on my bookshelves also. I see you have a review of A Moveable Feast. After visiting Hemingway’s homes in Key West and Cuba recently, I’m anxious to learn more about his life.

    • Charlotte

      I really love Hemingway. He was such a brilliant dialogue writer. I can only hope to get half as good as his dialog one day.

  • Damyanti

    Thankyou so much for sharing your cherished books with us, and taking part in the Cherished Blogfest.

    This makes the post so much more meaningful: In a world where books are increasingly less tangible, they are a luxury, a treasure that can be touched and smelled and held.

  • tara tyler

    i enjoyed your nostalgic journey. i also went through and read some of your reviews, i always appreciate reading reviews and hearing others’ thoughts on books old & new! books are a great thing to cherish!

  • Almost Iowa

    I still have the first book I truly fell in love with, a sci-fiction anthology of the early 60’s. I keep it so that one day I might revisit the joy I felt reading it back then…

    • Charlotte

      Which one? I shelved used books at a library book sale as a young person and have a rather large collection of those! Folks would bring in the best books from their attics and basements. Every day was a treasure day.

  • Dan Antion

    I am so glad that you shared this with us during the blogfest, this is a great story and I love books so it was even better. I think any book(s) that have meaning like this deserve top-shelf treatment. I recently purchased one of my childhood favorite books, “The Twilight Zone” a collection of stories I borrowed from the school library so many times I think I filled the card. It’s not a classic, but it has special meaning to me. Thanks again for participating!

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