My Ideal Bookshelf

Posted October 21st, 2013 by Candice


The other day my favorite librarian said she’d just come across a recent book she thought I’d like and would put it with my requested holds.   Don’t you love a librarian who does that?  The book is called My Ideal Bookshelf, edited by Thessaly La Force. 

More than 100 creative people were asked to contribute–chefs, writers, architects, photographers, dancers, actors, filmmakers, fashion designers, artists.   Their assignment:  “Select a small shelf of books that represent you, the books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favorite favorites.” 

Illustrator Jane Mount painted the contributor’s selections.  The details on the spines, down to the publisher’s colophons, are charming, even a little tipsy.  Never before have books looked like they were having such a good time.


Inspired by the book–and by its last page, a shelf of blank books you fill in your own titles–I decided to create my own Ideal Bookshelf.  It was hard to keep the books down to a reasonable number. 

I went from room to room (yes, there are bookcases in every room in our house), gathering paperbacks and hardcovers, a few new, most old, and assembled the group on the desk-bookcase my stepfather built for me 40 years ago. 

When I look at this collection, I’m already wondering why I don’t have Charlotte’s Web and more books by Lee Smith.  Why is Bailey White’s Quite a Year for Plums missing?   But that’s okay.  This is my Ideal Bookshelf today.  The next time I build that shelf, different books would be on it (though some would always be present.)

My collection isn’t as literary as the contributors–no Nabokov, no Ayn Rand or Hemingway or Woolf.   No Proust and we share the same birthday.   The books that shaped me were borrowed from school and public libraries or purchased from People’s Drugstore. 

The books aren’t arranged in any particular order.   Lord of the Rings is first because I read the first American paperback edition at age 13 and for the next ten years lived in Middle Earth.  The Fellowship of the Ring was my boyfriend litmus test–if he’d read it, great; if he hadn’t, and he couldn’t get through it, he was history.  This slipcased set cost $50 in 1973, a small fortune.  

Minders of Make-Believe by Leonard Marcus is new and my favorite book about the history of children’s book publishing.  It made me long to be a children’s book writer in the 20s and 30s when juvenile books were still a brave new world.

Watership Down–this is my original first edition bought at Woodward and Lothrop.  Does anybody remember book departments in department stores?  Does anybody remember Woodies?  I was on fire to read this book.  I’ve never viewed rabbits the same.

T.H. White is one of my favorite writers–I had to include The Once and Future King (actually four books) and his lighter Mistress Masham’s Repose.  My first choice for a read-aloud is The Sword and the Stone (the first book in the quartet).  I found the book in the library around the same time I read The Lord of the Rings.  Who needed YA fiction when such riches were sitting on the shelf?

I was a little younger when I borrowed my sister’s copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  I saw myself in Francie Nolan and found a world beyond my sleepy Virginia towns. 

As a grown-up, I discovered Eudora Welty.   When I am stuck for something to read, I reach for her short story collection.  She is a place-based writer and her work and essays have taught me much about place.

If the house catches fire, my husband has strict instructions to grab Winchester, Ellsworth (my stuffed animal), and my Trixie Belden books (I’m to rescue my Little Lulu comic book collection).  These books gave me the inspiration to be a writer.  I would grow up and write series mysteries just like Trixie Belden and make girls happy everywhere!

I’ve written about The Diamond in the Window before.   Jane Langton’s book changed my life at age 11.   I learned about Emerson and Thoreau (whose teachings I still follow) while gripped in a mystery/adventure/fantasy.  There are so many children’s books that inspire me, but Diamond is my yardstick.  It’s the standard I hold my work to–and I haven’t gotten there yet.

I made the mistake of reading Truman Capote’s novellas to my husband, one on Thanks-giving, the other on Christmas.  We were both a mess by the time I got to the end. 

Lee Smith is my favorite living author.  I believe I became a Hollins Girl because of Lee Smith (also Margaret Wise Brown and Jill McCorkle and Annie Dillard).  It’s hard to choose my favorite book of hers because they are all wonderful, but when I first read Oral History, I realized it was okay to write about my own rural upbringing.

Gone-Away Lake and Return to Gone-Away are perfect children’s books.  Just perfect.  Elizabeth Enright is better known for The Saturdays, but I re-read these books every single summer.   I still want to find that lost lake.  I’d move into one of those abandoned old houses in an eyeblink.

To Kill a Mockingbird.  What else needs to be said?

And last, The Burgess Bird Book for Children by Thornton W. Burgess.  No one read those old-fashioned books in the early 60s.   Published in 1917, The Burgess Bird Book featured syrupy prose (“Liperty-liperty-lip went Peter Rabbit as Jolly Mr. Sun rose over the Great Green Meadow”) but I ate it up with a spoon.  The paintings in the book are by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, a prominent wildlife artist.   I memorized every color plate and nearly wore the print off the pages, I checked this book out so many times. 

Every Friday afternoon, I skipped out of Centreville Elementary with The Burgess Bird Book for Children (or, alternatively, The Burgess Animal Book for Children) under my arm.   I wouldn’t be lonely over the weekend.  My dearest friend in the world was going home with me.

I loved playing contributor to My Ideal Bookshelf.  You can create your own bookshelf and Jane Mount will paint it!   Or you can do what I did, gather your favorites, spend a little time with them, and take a family photo.