White Space

My friend Josey wrote a lovely post today about the stacks of books beside her bed and how they reflect her self-image. She says:

There was a time when I made excuses about the way in which I buy books, one after another, no discipline, no waiting until I’ve finished one before buying another one or two or three or four. Whether or not I read them right away (or ever) is no longer a consideration. I cherish books. They comfort me in the same way looking at art can give someone a sense of themselves. Books reflect back to me something about myself, something I consider sacred. Something that has been with me since the beginning of me. I do not remember a time when there wasn’t a book on my nightstand.

I like this sense of connectedness, especially to the idea of a book we have yet to read. The story is so pure at that stage, so pristine in its tidy jacket—not unlike the beginning stages of the book before it’s written, existing only in the writer’s mind. The story is better at this point than it ever will be on paper. Every writer knows this is true, but before today I never stopped to think that it could be the same for the reader.

For me, the books I want to buy reflect as much about my personality as the ones I’ve read a dozen times. Because I write thrillers, I want to love them as a reader; I imagine myself gobbling them up as fast as they hit the shelves, knowing all the characters’ names and back stories, all their psychic wounds. I dream of a collection of memoir from far-flung points with exotic names and historical significance. I try hard to love the classics, the brainy books, the fat literary hardbacks with distinguished names on the covers and authors who show up on national TV. I want to love erotica. And cozy mysteries. And science fiction. And romance.


Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

And I do love them, that’s the thing. Whether or not I choose those books for myself, I love that they exist, that they’re part of our culture, that other people have devoured them. I feel as connected to the books I haven’t read as the ones that I adore.

But for the most part, the nightstand collection I imagine for myself is not the one I’ve actually accumulated. The books I’m drawn to have a certain look about them: they’re slim and dark, trade paper usually, and when you look through the pages you’ll see a fair amount of negative space. They almost all involve deep character studies of precocious children. (I’ve only just realized that. Children are the common denominator.) They are usually light on references to the establishment; the characters exist on the periphery, and they tend to start and resolve their problems amongst themselves. The communities are often poor. The settings are rural. And people get badly hurt, but they fight like hell going down.

I don’t read widely, or with any particular emphasis on the kinds of books I like to write. My tastes are narrower than I wish they were, more limited in scope than they probably should be. I get passionately attached to certain books and reread them obsessively, which means that I don’t get through as many as I’d like to. But that’s okay. There are no shoulds in reading that truly influence me. There are only books, wonderful books, in all their prim (or raggedy) jackets, waiting for me to crack them open.

What does your bedside book collection say about you?

29 responses

  1. Mine mostly says I’m in imminent danger, and have no idea how to safely stack books. If that huge pile falls on me, I’m a goner.
    As for content, I’ll have to think about it. It’s all fiction. Several have won Bookers, Pulitzers, or Miles Franklins. Others will never win anything but the hearts of readers who enjoy funny stories that also mean something.
    I don’t think I know myself well enough to work out the answer to your question. But it’s a great question. I’ll have to think about it.

    • My books tend to spread horizontally. When my husband comes home from from being on the road for a few weeks, I have to clear his side of the bed so the poor guy has a place to sleep.

  2. all the memoirs are evidence of my voyeuristic nature, especially my need to ogle at the lives of women who have done what i want to do. i like flirting with new agey themes. appear to be suffering from a period of low creative flow. i’m a sucker for pretty book jackets and sometimes believe that having a book about exercise does just as much as good as actually exercising.

    the stack does, however, totally ignores what great friends i have.

    • Interesting about the voyeurism. I try to read memoir sometimes because I love the writing, but I tend to get derailed by the fact that I’m reading someone’s actual life story. It feels too intimate. I prefer to look at people more obliquely, through the lens of fiction. Soft-focus, as it were.

  3. “No human would stack books like this.”

    My beside pile says that I read to my kids a lot—or that’s my excuse—and I like poetry and Robert B. Parker and Terry Pratchett, and biographies and historical gay romance. And matte vampires. And short mystery stories.

    And I need a bigger bedside table . . .

  4. Like Josey, I’m a rabid voyeur with my shelves of memoir and biography. I treat my books like art, and no matter if the covers are old new shiny matte dark light fat thin tall tiny, I’d rather gaze at walls of books than a painting any day. I love WWII history and the Civil War era and short story collections and politics and literary fiction …. and thrillers that keep me awake at night. And books about dogs.

    • A wall of books is a thrilling sight. At the Seattle library, there’s this loooong neon-yellow escalator that travels from one end of the building to the other, and all the way up. And you get these amazing views of all the books, and so many people reading and writing, with the light streaming in and the city all around. Dear god. I almost peed myself.

  5. That is a beautiful excerpt from your friend’s post! That is exactly how I feel about buying more books than I’ll ever be able to read. And I think she’s right about the sacred part! The quote I have posted at the top of my blog reads, “Your sacred space is where you can find yourself over and over again” Joseph Campbell. My Life in Books is my blog…very appropriate.

    Don’t know what the specific stacks say about me – but the sheer number of books speaks of love.

    • I’ll admit that I still feel guilty when I buy a book that I don’t end up reading, but only because finances are too tight for luxury items right now. But it’s wonderful when there’s a bit of extra dough lying around and I can go to a bookstore and come away with a stack. Happy day!

      • Yes, in the past four years I’ve mostly put my wish list on paperbackswap.com because it only costs shipping to send books and then I can pick from someone else a book I want. It has made me very picky about the books I’ll buy at a store or elsewhere online because you can’t beat the price. However, this didn’t happen until I had already amassed a huge collection.

  6. Like some of your other commenters, my bedside stack says I’m still the kid whose eyes are bigger than his brain–I buy way more books and journals and magazines than I can ever read.

    It made me smile to see people describe what they read, which is often very different from what I read, and yet we can all talk about it here without animosity. It’s one of the things that has always attracted me to the writing life, and driven me away from the “real” world.

    • Yes, the writing tribe is incredibly diverse and full of fascinating characters who are all coming at the written word from a slightly different angle. I love conversations about books and writing, even when the material is far removed from the kind of stuff I like. I love that someone else is into it, you know?

  7. The only book bedside, the Bible.

    I don’t read in bed so that tells you how much I read the good-book. I use the Bible like an answer eight-ball. “Will I win Powerball today?” Answer “doubtful” so I keep asking and flipping open to a random page and pointing until I get the answer I want. The road to hell is paved with skewed views of “the word”.

    My stack of TBR is couchside in my bedroom, King, Sedaris, Azimov among many others. I have gone to the dark side lately and have filled my Kindle with free science fiction pulp. I love SF and will finally admit to a serious relationship with my Kindle.
    I would take my Kindle to bed but then again it’s been awhile since I have shared the sheets with anything which runs on batteries. Hahaha – start with the Bible and end with pleasure by battery, I AM going to hell. I’ll let you in on the backstory when I get there.

    • Have you read Zealot by Reza Aslan? I haven’t, but I did see him on Bill Maher and he said something interesting about the way people are drawn to the Bible because they can make the text mean whatever they want under any given circumstance. Like a magic 8-ball, maybe.

      (This is the clip. Aslan’s bit is around the 7:00 mark.)

      • Christ Averil, how the hell did you find that bite or remember it, or should I say, find, remember and relate it to my freaken eight ball theory?
        You are amazing my dear…I am not worthy…I’ll say it again, you are amazing.
        It’s youth, I just know it, it’s freaken youth.

  8. First, I remember the day in 1st grade, when I’d been handed one of those Dick and Jane primers. I was told to read a sentence in the little reading circle I was in …and it was, (can you guess?), “Go! Go! Go Dick go!” I was so proud when the teacher praised me for getting my “tone” right with the exclamation points. I’ve loved reading ever since, and like Josey, I don’t recall a day when I was growing up that I wasn’t reading something.

    What does your bedside book collection say about you?

    Probably not much.

    Being the uptight, neat, orderly person that I am… there are no stacks of books by my bed. I have the “currently reading” book there, but the rest of that TBR pile sit in my “office.” They stare a hole in my back while I peck away at the computer. Sometimes, I can hear them back there, whispering…

    “She’s trying to write a story like me.”


    “Me… Pick me… I’ve been waiting the longest…”

    I’ll only choose the one I know might help with my current WIP. There’s a method in that, I think.

    • I’m the same way with my choice du jour: it almost always has something to do with the book I’m currently writing. Right now I’m on a Jennifer McMahon tear because her books are nonlinear like my WIP, and I’m trying to see how she pulled it off.

  9. “What does your bedside book collection say about you?”


    Speaking of, ummm…books and things

    “…And cozy mysteries….And romance.”

  10. Beautiful post. Especially as I’m wondering which books to take away camping this summer. My treasures are all on my bookshelf and have been waiting for this moment all year – they are all puffing their chests and wanting to be chosen.
    For during school time I don’t read so much. Or I do, and it’s like a dirty love affair until I have finished. I’ve left some of the complicated things for now. What I adore are short stories, wicked sensual ones. Or stuff set in Africa, or on the edge of a culture or climate or world. I love characters who feel out of place, who observe, who move badly, who come up against everything and don’t exactly triumph. I like injustice, foreignness, even evil in short drifts. Love convinces me less and less. And children, yes, but they can be so damaged!