I Fall in Love with Bookshelves Too Easily
Erin Mayer Has a Thing for Vacation Reading...
On a Fourth of July trip to my friend’s house in Nantucket, I fell in love with a bookshelf. It took up one entire wall of the cavernous living room and was stuffed with books whose well-worn covers coordinated with the faded blue and white decor. The beach and gently swaying seagrass outside the window receded into the distance as I ran my fingertips over the faded spines, my mind humming with possibilities. I only had a few days; I would need to choose wisely.
This is how it goes whenever I go on vacation: one moment I’m dropping my luggage at the front door, the next I’m examining the contents of a stranger’s book collection as if pulled by an invisible thread. Vacation home bookshelves appeal to me the same way used bookstores do. I love my own well-curated stacks at home, but I always know what I’m going to find among them. An unfamiliar shelf, on the other hand, brings an element of surprise: There’s a thrill that comes from scanning the titles not knowing what my eyes will land on next. Relying on chance adds serendipitous magic to the vacation reading experience. Nothing beats the sudden rush of blood to the head that comes from spotting a book I’ve been meaning to read forever on the shelf, like the feeling of spotting an old friend among the waiting crowd on a subway platform.
That afternoon in Nantucket I used my index finger and thumb to ease a slim, bright yellow volume off the tightly packed shelf. It was the classic Nora Ephron essay collection I Feel Bad About My Neck. “I’ve always wanted to read this!” I said out loud, though my husband and friend had moved from checking out the bookshelf to checking out the ocean view from the upstairs porch. And then I did.
Collections in vacation houses or rental homes have an inherently random quality that makes finding a worthwhile read even more special. There’s little rhyme, reason, or theme attached—these are simply the volumes that washed ashore, the ones forgotten or left behind by erstwhile vacationers. Bookshelves in the places we rent when we’re taking a break from our realities reflect the transient nature of the houses and apartments themselves; everyone who comes here is simply passing through. Sometimes, they leave books behind. Trash meets treasure, as it were.
Browsing the bookshelves of my temporary housing adds a layer of urgency that is typically lacking from my reading life. Suddenly, a book I’ve put off purchasing at my local bookstore becomes the most important book, the only book. That might be because my other options are a waterlogged copy of Holes by Louis Sachar that a one-time fourth grader clearly dropped in the pool and then “forgot” to pack for the journey home or a 17-volume encyclopedia someone’s grandfather bought to fill the bookshelves, but the effect is powerful nonetheless. Books that I procrastinated in favor of buzzier titles turn irresistible when cast in the light of limited options.
I’ve discovered many favorites this way: Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit’s essay collection about activism, unearthed in the house on Cape Cod my husband’s family rents in August, consumed with held-breath optimism on the beaches surrounding Wellfleet; High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver, absorbed in less than 48 hours during a brief stay at a Hansel and Gretel dream residence in the California redwoods; peeling old fashioned detective novels kicking up a damp musty smell in a shadowy corner of a cabin in the Adirondacks, the bottoms of my feet warmed by the fire. I will forever associate these books with the places where I first encountered them, and that serene sense of peace that washes over you on afternoons when you have all the time in the world to read.
I acknowledge that my habit of trolling the bookshelves wherever I go makes me a perplexing vacation companion. At times it leads me to prioritize words on the page over sightseeing and small talk. I’ve always been known for reading unabashedly when others might think it rude, certainly not another person or a trip to the beach is going to get between my book and me. Besides, there’s the ultimate bittersweet fact of borrowing a book on vacation: you have to return it when you eventually leave. Back to the dust-free square of shelf you took it from, and you back to your life. Not finishing isn’t an option for me; that would mean squandering the most beautiful gift from the universe—the gift of a book and hours of freedom.
Recently, my husband and I attended a wedding at a friend’s family home in Vermont. The event took place over a full weekend; we arrived at 10 p.m. on Thursday night and by 10:20 pm I was sitting in front of the fire, hunched over a copy of Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I’d found it on the top shelf of a bookcase in same room where the reception would take place Saturday evening. Now I pored over the first few pages, surrounded by circular tables trimmed with ivory tablecloths, the ghosts of the upcoming party, my ears perked and half listening to the conversation floating in the air above my head. Occasionally I looked up from the open volume to respond to something that was said.
Groff’s fragmented and lyrical novel tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde, who marry after dating for only two weeks. The book is beautiful, peppered with the kinds of sentences that make you think yes, that’s how it is. The book is also 390 pages long. I read late into that first night, I read the next day while I brushed my teeth, I read in an Adirondack chair facing the mountains, I read while my friends swam in the lake, I read waiting for the ceremony to begin, shifting uncomfortably in my black mesh dress as the bride and groom’s families swarmed around me. I even read later that night when finally back in our cabin, so full of wine that the words lifted off the page and rearranged themselves in my vision. On the last morning in Vermont I held the book in one hand and packed up my clothes with the other until, finally, I read the very last page.
I don’t think I missed out on anything by reading my way through this particular weekend; I still chatted with strangers, looked up at the stars, felt my eyes go moist during the wedding vows, danced to cheesy country music when many of the other guests had gone home. But in the idle moments, when everyone was otherwise occupied, the book was there to help me recharge my social energy. Groff encouraged me to think about marriage—the very thing we were there to celebrate—in a new way. Reading Fates and Furies in that setting added a different texture than it would have to my morning commute or my own living room, and now my memories of that long weekend and of the book are inextricably linked.
When I put Fates and Furies back on its shelf Sunday afternoon, my heart dipped. I was sad to leave it behind as the daylight faded on a nearly perfect weekend. But I’m already moving on, thinking about all the books on unknown bookshelves in the towns and cities and states I’ve yet to visit.