Monthly Wrap: Our Book Collections

by Susan Henderson on October 10, 2008

We have bookshelves throughout our house. And there are books on tabletops, on the corner of the couch, and beside the cereal boxes. But our favorite books typically end up in the living room, on the shelves on either side of the fireplace.

On my side (the shelf on the left) are severely dog-eared paperback editions of African American literature, steel mill poetry, and various books that make me cry. The books I read over and over often sit sideways across the others: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Leaf Storm; William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows; Jean Toomer, Cane; J.D Salinger, Nine Stories; Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (which I’ve read more than any other book, despite having no particular interest in Vietnam or war). The top shelf holds the books I’m in.

On Mr. Henderson’s side are hardcover copies of Russian epics, British fantasy, and science- and disaster-based books. He buys everything by Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie, and Neil Stephenson (he doesn’t like the new one, by the way). And he regularly lends out his two favorites – Magnus Mills, Restraint of Beasts and Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, Good Omens.

Mr. H is careful with the spines of his books, uses bookmarks, never writes grocery lists on the blank pages. We are different in this way. And we enjoy books for different reasons. I like books that are emotionally stimulating; he likes books that are intellectually stimulating.

Over the twenty-plus years we’ve known each other, we’ve occasionally tried to read each other’s books, and it almost never works. It’s not that I’m devoid of intellect or he’s devoid of emotion; and it’s not that one of us has good taste and the other has bad taste. Simply put, we have different passions, and I suspect one of the things that attracts me to him is precisely that.

So, why is it such a slippery slope when we talk about the kinds of books we love?

Maybe it’s because our taste in books shows something about who we are at our core. What thrills or frightens us. What makes us laugh, and what moves us to tears. When someone looks at our favorite book and says, “It was so boring, I couldn’t finish it,” it feels like they’ve criticized us in the most personal way.

This feels all the more personal when you’re not just a reader but a writer, too. I learned this in college.

This is me as an undergrad. I hope to never be so miserable again.

Until then, only my mom and a few teachers had read my writing. Imagine (and this shouldn’t be difficult for most of you) that you’ve come to class to share your writing for the first time. You’ve struggled to create something you hope is deep or funny or clever. But what you discover is you’ve actually bored your readers. You’ve written something confusing and static and self-indulgent.

Wanting to be a writer is sort of like saying, “My goal in life is to be a heroin junkie because I want to be poor, isolated, and too obsessed to spend quality time with the people I love. Also, I want to have insomnia and blurry vision.”

So why keep at it?

I’m going to turn to the wisdom of one of this month’s guests, David Morrell, to say that the reason we keep at it, despite the hard work, despite the rejection is, We have to.

Something (maybe a secret, or a situation we never understood) nags at us, haunts us. It begs us to put it on paper and to get it right. Again, these are David Morrell’s thoughts, which he says much better here and here.

No story will interest everyone, but it’s our job to try to engage and thrill our readers with every tool at our disposal (plot, character, words). Writers of all genres know this struggle of trying to tell the story they need to tell in the best way they know how. There is enough rejection and criticism in this business without us tearing each other down.


Here’s what I read this month: Janet Fitch, Paint it Black (I’ll be the first to buy whatever she writes next); Sharon Olds, The Father (Incredible); Karen Dionne, Freezing Point (My first ever thriller, and I’ll be shocked if it’s not made into a movie); and Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer (Just felt like reading this one again. Damn, he’s good). Most of you know I still read to my kids every night, and this month we read, for the fifth or sixth time, Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking (Funny, quirky, and occasionally heartbreaking).

Thank you to everyone who played here this month, and to my October guests: Karen Dionne, Gayle Lynds, Barry Eisler, and David Morrell. And thanks to all who linked to LitPark: Deep Thinker, ::Buddhastic::, ass backwords, She Shoots to Conquer: The Blog, maryanne stahl at her mac, Imagination in Flight, The Publishing Spot, Keyhole Blog, Notes From the Handbasket, Awake in a Peacock’s Dream, Koreanish, wordswimmer, A Writer and a Rider, Word of the Day, Notes from the Handbasket, Samantha Ling, camera-obscura, Darby Larson, Paperback Writer 2 – novelboy’s Blog, Red Room, MWA, ITW, Ellen Meister, and Backspace. I appreciate those links!

See you the first Monday of November!

{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

Nathalie October 11, 2008 at 12:36 am

Mr. H’s library sounds attractive (i.e. similar to some of mine). He did not like Anathem? Drats. I’ve ordered that for my birthday. Oh well. I’ve never heard of Magnus Mills, though.
Have you read “The Time of our Singing”, by Richard Powers? I read that last month and loved it.


SusanHenderson October 11, 2008 at 7:04 am

I haven’t. Mr. H has PLOWING THE DARK – – which was suggested as a birthday present for him by my friend, John Warner –

Let me know what you think of the new Stephensen, or Magnus Mills. And happpy birthday! Libra?


Betsy October 11, 2008 at 10:03 am

Oh, I just love to see people’s bookshelves! Not to mention pictures of themselves in the 80s. That’s very cute. And moody. i too hope never to be that miserable again.


Nathalie October 11, 2008 at 10:12 am

Birthday isn’t before end of next month…
Have you read books by J.M.G. Le Clezio? He has been very little translated but I have been loving his books for a long lime and I was so happy when I learned he’d been given the Nobel.


Aurelio October 11, 2008 at 10:50 am

At least you looked cute being miserable, Susan.

The problem with bookshelves is, no matter how many you have there are never enough. I prefer order, but have come to reluctantly accept sideways books stuffed into all the remaining slots above the racked ones. And I love seeing my own book sitting in my shelf with the others.

I have to say too, I don’t relate to peer competition in regard to writing, or one genre being in competition with another. It’s not like there will only be one good book or genre, and if someone else gets the slot, I won’t. If another writer I know gets a best-seller, how does that hurt me? They don’t have my mind, my experiences, or my particular take on life, nor I theirs. Isn’t that what it’s all about, what drives us all to write in the first place? If I fail, it won’t be because one of my peers succeeds before I do. It will be because I failed to successfully connect with readers, all on my own.

And if something I write can be one of those books that is crammed in a slot above everyone’s racked ones, I’ll have succeeded.


Kimberly October 11, 2008 at 11:41 am

Oh that darn Mr H sucked me into Magnus Mills with The Restraint of Beasts… it’s been made into a film, with one of my very faves no less (Rhys Ifans) but it’s still not been released.

I hope they do it justice. Damn that was a funny book.

Did you know Pippi Longstocking was the first film I auditioned for (and got rejected from)? I still have the letter. All auditionees got free membership to the Pippi Longstocking fan club. That was pretty big of them, I thought.


aimeepalooza October 11, 2008 at 12:08 pm

Man, what a beautiful miserable.
Also, I always thought saying I want to be a writer was like saying I want to be a super model. But, junkie works too, in a different way.
I never really thought of what I read as a reflection of me but it really is. I get very emotional when someone tells me one of my favorite authors is a hack. I guess that’s why I’m okay with friends and family stealing my books. It makes me smile when they report back that they loved what I loved.


aimeepalooza October 11, 2008 at 12:09 pm

oh, you were in the fan club? I always wanted braids like hers….and a horse to live in my house.


Nathalie October 11, 2008 at 1:29 pm

Your book is in a slot in my library…


Aurelio October 11, 2008 at 1:46 pm

Hee. I’m on my way. 🙂


Aurelio October 11, 2008 at 1:47 pm

Did you braid wires in your hair?


SusanHenderson October 11, 2008 at 10:19 pm

I’ve never read him. His bio is fascinating:


SusanHenderson October 11, 2008 at 10:20 pm

I’ve been meaning to ask – Are you going to the next AWP? It’s in Chicago.


SusanHenderson October 11, 2008 at 10:21 pm

I agree. I also think it benefits all writers the more we READ.


SusanHenderson October 11, 2008 at 10:25 pm

If you have a photo of your Pippi try-out, I want to see it!


SusanHenderson October 11, 2008 at 10:26 pm

Hee. It’s never once occurred to me to equate writers with super models.


Kimberly October 12, 2008 at 9:37 am

No photos, only the rejection letter.


Kimberly October 12, 2008 at 9:38 am

No. I just assumed they would put a wig on me. How funny that I was so self-assured at such a young age.


Kimberly October 12, 2008 at 9:40 am

I wanted a horse in my house too! I had to settle for Barbie’s tan plastic steed instead.


Aurelio October 12, 2008 at 11:03 am

My “to read” pile keeps growing. When I get this book done I’m going to have to set aside a chunk of time to get caught up.


SusanHenderson October 12, 2008 at 9:25 pm

Khaled has a really terrific article in today’s Washington Post:


5speener0 October 13, 2008 at 11:01 am

Oh. Susan, I LOVE your side of the fireplace! My books are in loose categories and they are up and down and sideways and even facing the front…when the cover is especially interesting! They are also in bookcases all over the house: some in the living room, some in the kitchen, some in my home office and a few in my bed-side table drawer.

Oh, the dog-eared pages, why they are nothing but the love handles in your relationship with a book, am I right?

Eve is on my bedside table right now, and she’s traveled to Chicago and back with me, but work is too much and my brain is too tired by the time I’m ready to rest. Aurelio, rest assured, Eve and I will go on a date soon.

Susan, while I identify and feel cofmortable on your side of the fireplace, I do have to admit to hanging out on the other side and to having lofty goals for my reading sometimes. For instance, there is Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, waiting for me to “grow” enough to attempt it once again! Of course, this book is sitting next to Geek Love, one of my all-time faves on love and perspectives (and the madness of people following charismatic leaders), and A Confederacy of Dunces, which (for me) means this is a well-balance bookcase.

I also agree with you about people who belittle MY beloved books. That’s painful–knife through the heart!

And for my last confession today, I’ll share with you that I am into music as much as I’m into books, so I have to admit to reading while something’s playing. My musical taste is about as confused as my taste in books. You can check out my current playlist on MySpace to see what I mean (

Which of these two loves is most important? I admit that it’s the words, for not only do I read them (mine and those of others), but I’ve got to write them too. It’s a fire in the belly kind of thing–doesn’t matter who will read what I write, I don’t care who may not like what I write, I don’t need permission to write, I just HAVE TO WRITE. End of my story.

Off to my busy-ness once more.

Thanks for letting me play, even though I was late.


5speener0 October 13, 2008 at 11:20 am

Oops, forgot about Dewey’s bookcase. As you might expect, it is filled with more of what Mr. H has on his shelves, and it should suit Aurelio’s desire for order, but the unexpected is that he, too, displays a little strangeness in his “layout”. His books are all spines-to-the-front, but he’s got magazines mixed up in there on their sides AND (horror of horrors) he has file folders on their sides living on the same shelves also! I suspect I’ve rubbed off on him a little after 15 years?


SusanHenderson October 13, 2008 at 1:24 pm

Terrific interview about Karen Dionne’s Freezing Point over here:

Hope you’ll check it out!


SusanHenderson October 13, 2008 at 1:30 pm

I’m with you, Despina. Dog-ears are a sign of love. Those who’ve borrowed books from me know I don’t just turn the corners down; I bend the page all the way to the specific line I want to remember. The pages end up with a kind of origami look to them.

Confederacy of Dunces is such a tremendous book. Tragic backstory.

Great playlist. I’ve been listening to the new Lucinda CD, too, though my favorite is still Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. My musical taste LOOKS very confused to other people because I can go from Lucinda to Public Enemy to opera in one sitting. What ties all of my music together is I like it to give my emotions a big push in any direction.


5speener0 October 14, 2008 at 11:30 am

Car Wheels is Dewey’s favorite of all of Lucinda’s cds. We even have a video of an amazing performance of mostly CW songs, Live From Austin City Limits. We “force” all of our friends to watch that one, along with “Frida” and “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man”…but not all three on the same day.


5speener0 October 14, 2008 at 11:32 am

Thanks for sharing this one. I am saddened by the hate I see in the world, most of all in our own back yard!


Shelley October 14, 2008 at 2:37 pm

Susan, You were in my dream this morning, so I had to check in. I’ve been away working on my novel, now on the rolling down the hill second half of what appears to be the final draft. Good to read yours and everyone’s words here. Very encouraging. Today is the full moon, oh, and Mercury goes direct tomorrow, but will linger until the 20th.

Aberdeen, NC


SusanHenderson October 14, 2008 at 5:28 pm

You had a dream about me? 🙂 Well…? Where did we go and what did we do?

Love that there’s a book called The Little White Bird. Let me re-link it here because the embedded link doesn’t seem to be working:

I am so glad to here you’re cranking on that draft. I didn’t realize there was a downhill when writing a book… I better try a new path next time!


SusanHenderson October 14, 2008 at 5:29 pm

Sounds like a great house for visitors!


Shelley October 14, 2008 at 5:53 pm

Thanks, Susan.
In my dream, we were somewhere in the countryside at night in the dark, with other writers…maybe we were playing Red Rover… that is all I can remember. I had too many dreams, feeling now as if I flew around the world last night.
Yes, well, maybe the feeling of downhill is a temporary state of mind when you reach the middle of the final draft. Then proceeding on is quite uphill once again.
That book shelf is at my wife Martha’s mother’s house. The LIttle White Bird by J.M. Barrie is pre-Peter Pan.


SusanHenderson October 14, 2008 at 7:00 pm

Well, this is cool (and I’m largely putting the link up for my mom and dad), but Bach-Boy, who got his first college recruitment letter last year, in 6th grade, was just nominated for the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. Anyone here go to that program?


SusanHenderson October 14, 2008 at 7:02 pm

I didn’t know that was a J.M. Barrie book. I re-read Peter Pan last year and was absolutely blown away by what a brilliant book it is. I’d started to confuse it with the Disney movie over the years.

I am so glad that I was playing Red Rover in the dark with you. That’s going to put me in a good mood for the rest of the week, and I really needed a mood changer!

Say hi to Martha for me.


DarylDarko October 14, 2008 at 8:31 pm

my collection of books has changed over the years according to what it is i’m into. i do not have all of the books i’ve ever owned. they’ve been passed along or sold (or lost). but i always seem to have a lot of books around me. my bed is usually littered with half open or bookmarked library books. anyway, just wanted to pop my head up here and let you know i’m still alive.


SusanHenderson October 15, 2008 at 8:38 am

That’s so interesting about being able to leave books behind. I can’t, even though most won’t get read again. Funny, I was just thinking recently how much I missed having two of my childhood books and was wondering if I should go ahead and buy them: Miss Suzy Squirrel ( ) and Nothing Ever Happens on My Block ( )


5speener0 October 15, 2008 at 9:22 am

Great! Everyone…come on over! 🙂


SusanHenderson October 17, 2008 at 12:21 pm

Passing this along from Hugh Hodge, who was a wonderful host when I read with him (as well as Mike Cope, Ken Barris, and Liesl Jobson) a few years ago in Cape Town:

Dear Susan,

I hope you will indulge me this once.

I am writing to you as editor of New Contrast, which is perhaps the
oldest surviving literary journal in South Africa.

New Contrast was started by Jack Cope in 1960. (In 2010 we plan to
celebrate our Golden Anniversary to celebrate the many fine and famous
writers whose work has graced the pages of the magazine.) Among our
patrons are the two living South African Nobel Laureates: Nadine
Gordimer and JM Coetzee.

In order to maintain the magazine, to open it to a wider readership and
to reward contributors better, we need subscribers. We need you
urgently. If you reply to this message I will be able to offer you a
reduced price. In addition, every 20th new subscription will be free for
the first year.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Best wishes,


Please spread the word to anyone you may know who has an interest in preserving South African literature. Here’s the link:


SusanHenderson October 20, 2008 at 11:16 am

Great piece on Neil Gaiman’s new book here:

I bought the book but can’t read it until my son finishes it.


troutbum70 October 21, 2008 at 5:33 pm

I have books everywhere in my house and a whole box full that disappered when I moved back from Minnesotta; God only knows where they are. I have ever expanding intrests and therefore my books are varied in subject and genre. Hemingway and McCarthy are my two favorites. I don’t know which is my favorite book Blood Meridian or The Old Man and the Sea, it’s a toss up. I’ve returned to school and I have little time for pleasure reading although I did read a book that you and your boys would love. Bud and Me by Alta Abernathy. It’s about two boys 9 and 5 who ride horseback from Oklahoma to New York City alone to see Teddy Roosevelt. It is awesome! Oh and I have a thing for redheads and I think it may steem from that dang Pippi Longstocking, I love those pigtails…


SusanHenderson October 21, 2008 at 8:28 pm

Glad you made it here, Michael! I love Hemingway and McCarthy, too. Edge definitely goes to McCarthy. Thanks so much for the book recommendation. I’ll check it out right now.


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