Every Shelf Tells a Story

2013-07-18 17.09.57There is something endlessly fascinating about those collections of books that accrete in public places, in the bars of small hotels or in rented houses.  If you’re in one of those places there’s always something to read, but I can never avoid wondering on who thought to leave the books there, and why they left the books behind.  Were they such favourites that the donor wanted to share the experience, or did they dislike them so much that they couldn’t be bothered to take the thing away?

This shelf was particularly satisfying in terms of wonder; it’s in a healthcare facility in Scotland.  Of the 17 books, I’d heard of two of them, the Saul Bellow, although given its environs a bit unfortunately named More Die of Heartbreak, and Madame Bovary by Flaubert.  Of the remaining ones, only one author’s name was familiar, Dean Koontz, although I’ve never read anything by him.  All the others are completely unknown to me.

Two have made me laugh out loud; although probably not in a good way.

Trampled by Lilies is by the wonderfully named The Honourable Lady Fortescue.  That of itself dates it; now an Honourable would go out of her gilded way to demonstrate her ‘ordinariness’.  I had to look inside to find out her name: Winifred, who delightfully, gave up her stage career to marry in 1914, and enjoyed an unprecedentedly happy marriage in spite of the large disparity between her age and that of her husband.  Hmmmm.

Matron Knows Best gave me a lesson in the importance of the first sentence in a novel.  My mother picked up the book, chuckled at the title, and then opened it to the first page.  She read very briefly, ‘It was 1966 when I first found myself standing outside Matron’s office..’

‘Boff, I don’t think so,’ she said before closing it and returning it to the shelf.

I’ve not asked her what she found so off putting about the opening, but the speed with which it made her dismiss the book was impressive.

Have you heard of any of the other books?  Can you ever resist studying a shelf of books and making up stories about the people who have created the collection?

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  1. No I can’t resist a bookshelf – especially if it’s in an unlikely place – the possible stories of how the books got there can be even more implausible then! I’m a leaver of books – maybe because if one catches my interest there’s no way I can leave it behind if I’ve not finished it before leaving, or maybe because I can never find a recycling library when I’m travelling, and I always stick to the “one to read, and one in reserve” rule, though things are a little easier since someone invented the wheely suitcase!

    • I have to agree!! It’s like you are almost peeking into someone’s identity, their personality. It can be thrilling at times and rewarding.

      • Personal collections are very revealing, but there’s also something fascinating about apparently random collections of abandoned or donated books.

    • One on the go, one in reserve is the golden rule isn’t it? (!) I find it very hard to leave books behind unless I’ve not enjoyed them. On major trips when I have been forced to relinquish some, I can still remember what I left where ( or at least kid myself that I can! )

  2. HAha awesome post. I have thought the same thing MANY times. Your bookshelf, to me, says that you like fiction!

    • Thanks. I do indeed like fiction, but I’m not sure I’d pick everything on this shelf!

  3. I am rather fond of Lady Fortescue’s Perfume from Provence books, though I don’t have Trampled by Lilies which I think must be the fourth one. The series is a rather twee account of her life in Provence but it has a wonderful atmosphere of bygone days.

    • Hi Fran – your comments went to spam for some mysterious reason, so I’ve only just seen them, and restored them to their rightful place! I’d never heard of Lady Fortescue, so it’s fascinating that you have. The little bit I read it did look of its period, but I just loved the little bit of biography of her – leaving the stage to marry a much older man in 1914- the scandal. I do hope it was a scandal!

      • Oh, thanks for telling me! Sorry I commented twice – I couldn’t understand what went wrong with the first comment. I don’t know if the marriage was a scandal, but they were very much in love and she was devastated when he died.

      • Thank you for all your comments! I’ll have another flick through Lady Fortescue later today!

  4. I’m rather fond of Lady Fortescue! Try her Perfume from Provence – a very old-fashioned and evocative account of her life in Provence before the war.

  5. Love this post, Rowena! My attitude to books I’m done with has changed radically since I started the Literary Sofa – I absolutely HAVE to offload them regularly or they would spill out of the front door. I like leaving a good book somewhere in the hope that someone else will enjoy it. Random collections of books are fascinating, I agree. I’ve often come across them in holiday cottages and find they’re often a combination of things I’ve already read and titles of absolutely no interest. Dutch language thrillers crop up regularly in the South of France!

    The shelf in your picture leans heavily to the latter for me but is redeemed by the presence of one of my favourite novels of all time, Madame Bovary, which I’ve read in the original many times.

    • Thanks Isabel! It was the presence of Madam Bovary that made me look at the collection of books more closely, as it seemed like positively the most unlikely book to be on that shelf in that place. I love it too. I too am increasingly leaving books behind me, and giving them away before I’m swamped by them.

      Houses in the South of France do seem to collect very strange libraries. I’ve not had the Dutch thriller experience, but do remember one that appeared to contain the complete ‘Hornblower’ series which eventually everyone in our party flirted with to a greater or lesser degree!


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