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The Shelves of Yesteryear

Joseph Bottum, unapologetic middlebrow

Jan 31, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 19 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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The man with the sidewalk table was selling The Man with the Golden Arm. Blowing on his hands, his steaming breath rising in the winter sun that slanted through Union Square, he offered almost-pristine copies of Ship of Fools and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

The Shelves of Yesteryear

David Gothard

To say nothing of Games People Play, Eric Berne’s 1964 pop-psychology bestseller, and Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl’s 1948 account of adventure on an ocean raft. Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings, Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror—perhaps a hundred books, each carefully sealed in a clear plastic envelope as though it were a rare and valuable volume. As though it were a classic edition. As though it were important.

From Here to Eternity and Peyton Place, In Cold Blood and The Making of the President 1960, Sophie’s Choice and The Peter Principle—the funny thing is that I’d read nearly all of them at my grandparents’ house, one time or another. You know these books, too. Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. They were permanent fixtures of the show-off shelves the middle class used to keep in their houses: the books that announced they were serious, well-rounded people. 

Not too many volumes, you understand. Bohemians and college professors, beatniks and longhairs: They might live surrounded by books—everything from Lawrence -Ferlinghetti’s poetry in A Coney Island of the Mind to Ernst Cassirer’s reinterpretation of intellectual history in The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy (both of which I read one desperately snowbound winter break while house sitting for a teacher at Georgetown). You’ve seen these places; a friend describes them as “graduate-student housing for people with slightly more money.” The successful middle class of doctors and lawyers and bankers and such would never have allowed their beautiful homes to be overtaken by such clutter. But some books—many books, really, by today’s standards—they did have to own. And to read.

The literary class distinctions in those days were delicate. Such bestsellers as James Michener’s Hawaii and Harold Robbins’s The Carpetbaggers were banned—but such equal bestsellers as Moss Hart’s Act One and William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich were required. Yes, to Saul Bellow’s Herzog. No, to Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice. And maybe, to Louis Nizer’s My Life in Court.

I saw them all again, in memory, while I browsed the bookseller’s table on that cold New York street. The dust jacket for my grandparents’ copy of The Caine Mutiny was blue, with silly drawings of naval officers. The Confessions of Nat Turner was orange, with a newspaper typeface, like an old-fashioned broadside. Myra Breckinridge I can’t remember. My grandmother wouldn’t let me read it.

Franny and Zooey, Travels with Charley, Rabbit Redux: These bestsellers didn’t count as intellectual books, exactly, and they certainly weren’t academic studies. What they were, really, was the highbrow end of the selections offered by the middlebrow Book of the Month Club. So I checked, and, sure enough, most of the plastic-wrapped books on the table had that little indentation on the back cover that showed they were book-club editions—making them even less valuable to buyers. Besides, all of these titles had been genuine bestsellers: thousands and thousands of copies printed. Rare and collectible are not good descriptions.

But I wanted them. I wanted them all. The display of such books on those white, floor-to-ceiling shelves built through the public spaces of the house—the living room, the parlor, that drinking room they called the library: This was how an entire class of people like my grandparents showed they were successful, cultured people. Capable of holding an intelligent conversation without making a show of intellectualism; capable of artistic appreciation without being artists. 

Serious people, in other words. People of weight who nonetheless hadn’t toppled over into eccentricity. The mainstay of American culture. That book table was like the altar of a cargo cult. Browsing through those old titles, I found myself wanting to call back the vanished time. To build such white shelves and to place on them such agreed-upon books. To be a person of weight, and balance, and confidence. 

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