For some, books are more than a collection of words, printed on paper, wrapped in a cover to tell a story or recount history.
They are “companions” with which their owners develop special relationships, and therefore are worthy of a special place in their homes.
“A book is an object that has weight and texture and images,” said Tucson author and poet Richard Shelton. “A book can be a thing of great beauty. It can look like somebody loved it. It might be dog-eared. It might have fingerprints all over it. You can tell that somebody used it.”
The Tucson Festival of Books March 12-13 on the University of Arizona campus is an opportunity for the public to partake in the love of books that Shelton and countless others have in a time when technology is changing how some people experience literature with electronic readers like Kindles and tablets.
Shelton, an emeritus Regents Professor of English at the UA and a past director of the UA’s creative writing program and the UA Poetry Center, estimates his book collection is at least 5,000 – although he admits that’s just a guess. The house he had built in the scenic desert near the Tucson Mountains in 1961 could conceivably serve as a public library large enough for a small community. Each room is a like a separate wing with his collection sorted and stacked alphabetically by author in three categories: nonfiction, fiction and poetry.
The centerpiece to Shelton’s personal library is a room he added on to his house as a master bedroom – 15 years ago, he thinks – where a U-shaped set of ceiling-high bookshelves create a space for him to settle into a comfortable chair and read. It’s part of the nonfiction section of his collection.
The room was built with a high ceiling to have space for a ribbon of windows around the top that provide plenty of natural light during the day. He preserved the view of the Catalina Mountains with large, corner windows where his dog, Benny, a Great Pyrenees, has a built-in bed to also enjoy the view.
“We needed more bookshelves and I wanted a room with all these windows – it has 15 windows,” Shelton said. “I based the design on Spanish missions. I did a lot of research on that. It’s a nice space; lots of books, lots of photographs of the family.”
The original bookshelves, which are made of pine with an oak veneer, ran out of space quickly, Shelton said, so a matching set of shelves was added on another wall in the room. The collection in the master bedroom is in addition to shelves he has in the two studies, one where he works and one where his late wife, Lois, a noted opera singer who also directed the UA Poetry Center, worked. There are more shelves in his living room and in another bedroom.
A 20-foot-by-20-foot guest house built eight years after the original house, also has a set of professionally built shelves with hundreds of books lining the wall. And yet, Shelton said, he’s out of shelf space.
“If you collect books like I do, every so often you completely run out of space and you have to figure out somewhere to put some more shelves,” Shelton said. “So that’s why I have shelves everywhere I possibly can. I’ve run out (of space). I’m giving away books as fast as I can.”
Since the 1970s, Shelton has been a fixture teaching creative writing at the state’s prisons, taking some of his book collection to the prisons to give to inmates.
“I’ve always felt that books are to be read and if somebody wants to read them, I’m willing to let them go,” he said. “Everything I have has circulated into the prison. I said at the beginning I’m not going to worry about loss, and there has been some loss, but it’s not serious. Mostly it’s the poetry that was lost.”
But like most collectors, there are parts of his collection that stay close to home.
“Every once in a while I hit a book that I can’t (give away),” Shelton said. “I can’t let this book go because maybe it won’t come back. Certain books like that mean so much – Charles Dickens’ ‘David Copperfield’ is one of them.”
Alison Hawthorne Deming, another Tucson author and poet who also teaches creative writing at the UA, said she doesn’t think her home would be home without the hundreds of books that surround her.
“I cannot imagine a life with a house that was not filled with books,” she said. “I would be terribly lonely without books. I had books as a child that I still have, and those were great companions for me.”
Deming said her love for books accelerated when, as a teenager, her mother brought home a box of “great classic novels” and she started reading through them as fast as she could.
“They helped me a great deal through the confusion of adolescence,” Deming said. “And sometime in that period, I think I felt if I could create books myself, that would be an amazing life and it has been for me. I think books are so important. They teach us to have empathy and to understand an experience way beyond our own.”
Like Shelton, Deming also has reached the space limits of her home and recently “downsized” her collection. But she doesn’t expect that it will ever go away, even as technology has made it possible to have library at one’s fingertips with the electronic readers on the market.
“I think people feel they have a more personal relationship with a book when they hold it in their hands,” Deming said, adding that she owns a Kindle only because she won one in a raffle. “I think I read two or three novels on it. I just did not find it satisfying.
“For a while, everyone on airplanes had a kindle. But now it’s surprising how – even on airplanes where convenience would say take a Kindle – you see an awful lot of people with a book. The experience of time and space are very different on a screen than they are with a book.”
And they certainly don’t give the experience that Shelton has built with his library, his view and his chair where he has things just the way he wants them – books everywhere the eye can see, which is how he would advise anyone building their own library.
“I would spread the books out through the house,” he said. “Don’t have a library with nothing but books in it. It won’t get used. Have lots of space, lots of light, lots of windows, high ceilings.”
Deming added: “I consider my books décor as well. They say something about who I am. Our homes say something about us, and this says something about my values. If I had an empty living room with no books in it, I would imagine that people would come to my home and think I was an empty person with nothing inside of me. That’s how I feel.”
Contact local freelance writerJay Gonzales at firstname.lastname@example.org
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