Chris Margolin

The Dusty Spine Smile of Words on a Shelf

“Confessions of an Educator” columnist Chris Margolin is organizing his book shelf and thinking it might be time to reduce his library.


I have a lot of books. Like, a lot. I don’t really read them. I mean, I read a percentage of them—probably 60%. Fine, 40%. They sit there on a shelf and give off their dusty spine smiles, but they don’t do anything. Well, that’s not totally true. They did do something to me—be it the strength I gained from an easy lift to the shelf, a bit of hard-earned cash, or a series of words which changed the way I thought about something, if only just for a moment—and pushed forward the motion of life.  That sounds just about as corny as some of the poetry books I’ve held onto simply for the sake of, well, holding onto them. They are pretty.

It’s petty. Really, at this point, more than 13 years removed from college, why on earth do I need Norton staring back at me from the spine of almost every Lit Crit, Poetry, British Lit, and whatever other important time period book which was thrust down our throats by college professors all across the land. I have not opened those books since college. Not once. Even when I was teaching some of that material, the Internet has made it so much easier than trying to thumb through the 5,000+ pages of Norton’s filing cabinet. But, they are pretty.

So, when does pretty not matter anymore? We just moved into a new house. One that is big enough to hold a whole lot of books. We’ve proven that with box after box after box. This time around, the pretty stuff just became a lot of stuff and, frankly, we just didn’t want a lot of stuff. We opened every box of books in the garage and went through each and every one, deciding which ones were keepers and which ones could be given to friends or schools or Powell’s or the library. We must have re-boxed—on the low end—one million books. And it still didn’t look like we’d done a damn thing.

Then I brought them all inside and started filling out the shelves. I tried to be a bit organized when I placed them, but the push and tug and stumble of stacks of words just kind of do their own thing; unfortunately, when that thing is done, they are still simply books on a shelf.

So, doesn’t it seem asinine to keep them? For example, right now, I’m looking at an old paperback copy of Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. If this was High Fidelity (sitting not too far from Portnoy), I’d say this is one of my top five books about being the son of New York Jews. But, I have a first edition of the same book in a really nice bookcase that holds what I like to think are my true favorites. So, the paperback one is just to … have.

And now that one’s in a box, as is the paperback copy of High Fidelity of which I have two first editions: the British and the American. It scares me to say that, since I grew up in the house of a true book collector. I just like High Fidelity. I don’t like the idea of collecting. It’s just engrained in me. It’s my blood. Unfortunately, books are one of those things that sit there. Once they’ve been taken in, the story doesn’t change. The message, at times, changes with the years. The characters begin to make more sense. Phoebe from Catcher in the Rye has become my favorite character for her valiant efforts in taking care of Holden, whereas, even five years ago, I would have screamed Holden’s name from the rooftops in the phoniest way possible. But, Phoebe isn’t going to jump down from the pages of Catcher to hang out with my daughter, and unless I’m planning on reading all of these, every year, or saving them all for the little one—which is simply not happening, she has a whole other world of books—doesn’t it just become stuff in a room? I have a lot of other stuff in the same room and most of that stuff usable.

I can’t say that even a small majority of the 40% of books on my shelf that I might have read will ever again be opened. I can’t imagine a time when I would really need to read To the Lighthouse when I’ve already read it to a point where I can feel it in my bones.

At the end of the day, it comes down to which of these books holds me in a way that I will want to pass it along to either my little one or a friend along the way. All of those dusty spine smiles have a story to tell you. But, how often do we really want to hear the same story, in the same damn way, with the same damn words, and with the same damn smell, over and over and over again?



Chris Margolin

Chris Margolin spent more than a decade in Education as a high school English teacher, and is now an Instructional Coach for the Longview School District. He is the founder of The Poetry Question, an online journal which focuses on reviews of small press poetry publications, and runs a regular series called "The Power of Poetry," where notable poets share their personal stories of how poetry has affected their lives. Margolin resides in Vancouver, Washington with his wife, and daughter. 

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