My Bookshelves: Guest post from Robert Hough September 18 2012

Today we’re thrilled to welcome author Robert Hough to our blog for a guest post. Robert’s latest novel, Dr. Brinkley’s Tower, was recently longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

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When my wife and I moved into our drafty, fifteen-foot wide home in May of 2000, we filled my office bookshelves – the most plentiful in the house – with novels I then carefully alphabetized by author. I dedicated some shelves in the basement to non-fiction books, and another set for short-story collections and back copies of Granta. To find a book I owned took a minute at the most.

Twelve years later I can never find anything, and just thinking about the state of my books leaves me with the same feeling of uselessness you get when you forget to pick your kid up from soccer practice. The root of this breakdown, as I see it, began with my overly generous wife, who for the longest time would lend out our favourite novels and then forget whom she’d lent them too. While she no longer does this, it’s my opinion that an insidious disorder crept into our book collection during this decade-long period. This disorder then grew like a fungus, until it got to the point we’ve arrived at today, whereby we own a whole lot of books we don’t like and don’t own any books that we actually do like.

For example. Recently I decided to re-read DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little, a wicked satire that I’d loved when it came out in 2004. I hunted, I grew frustrated, and in the end just bought another copy. Or this. Recently, a friend of mine likened my last novel, Dr. Brinkley’s Tower, to something John Steinbeck might have written. Despite the fact that I could picture exactly where I kept my copy of The Grapes of Wrath, I went to that spot and found it occupied by a short story collection by Harry Crews, my point being that ‘C’ is nowhere near ‘S’ in the alphabet and, even if it was, the Crews’ book was supposed to be down in basement. I had to go to the bookstore and again buy a book I probably already owned. Unbelievably, I’ve since  misfiled that copy as well.

With my system so irrevocably fucked-up, I’ve given up filing my books alphabetically at all. Today, if you looked at my office bookshelves, you’d see a bunch of older, yellowing paperbacks more or less in alphabetical order, with new books lying on top of them in no order whatsoever. That is, you would notice this if you could see beyond all the photographs, Tylenol bottles, Chinese medications, and bits of strange memorabilia that I now throw on my bookshelves for the simple reason I have no room for them anywhere else. As I write this, I’ve just spun in my chair to survey the mess I’ve created. During the ensuing twirl, I noticed Finnish copies of my first novel, an issue of Saturday Night magazine from 1995, and two boxes of Marvel comic books I should have thrown out when I was twelve.

Now. I could go around and collect every book in the house, throw out all the ones I dislike (which would be most of them) and then re-arrange the ones I’ve elected to keep. The question, of course, is whether I will I actually do this. At this junction I’d like to offer an illuminating anecdote. When we were having our bathroom renovated, the builders accidentally punched a two-inch hole through the  bathroom wall into my office. They repaired and primed it, meaning all I had to do was paint over it, a two-minute job at best. I even had some left-over paint.

This took me a total of nine years to get around to, and I can promise you that looking at that small hole didn’t trigger the same avoidance response my anarchic book collection does. Realistically speaking I will do nothing, unless of course we move to a different house. And I have to say that every time I buy a new book – I refuse to use a Kindle – it’s an option that grows a little more attractive.