New England Bookshelves

No matter where you travel in New England, you will find books: at antique shops, rental homes, inns, bookstores and even some restaurants and coffee houses. In New England, we love to read. It’s been part of our culture since the region was settled in the 1600s. Reading and books define us. A friend once remarked, “I enjoy meeting people, but I particularly like visiting their homes for the first time and seeing their bookshelves. What they read tells me so much about who they are.”

Bookcase in Chatham

Bookcase in Chatham, MA

How those books got onto the shelves is also a story, one that’s really a narrative of life. When we first started dating in the 1980s, we often found ourselves in a bookstore after a nice dinner or an invigorating hike. (Things haven’t changed much for us since.) It didn’t matter whether the bookstore had new or used books, because what was on the pages of those books always left a lifelong impression. They became part of us. Perhaps the story we write now is an attempt to attach us to our books, inspiring a future reader long after we’re gone.

Today, when we pull a book off the shelf, it immediately evokes memories of the day we bought it and of that particular time in our lives. For instance, we fondly remember two cookbooks (one Greek, the other Eastern European) that we picked up in 1988 after a fall visit to Pack Monadnock in Peterborough, NH. Now, when either of those books is removed, we recall hiking the Wapack Trail that day, dining afterwards at Hiroshi Hayashi’s innovative Latacarta restaurant, discovering a great recipe for Shopska salad and listening to Pachelbel’s Canon later that evening. It’s fascinating how our brains retain information by association.

Other bookshelves tell stories too. Recently, we vacationed by the Oyster River in Chatham, MA on Cape Cod. Like many New England seasonal, coastal properties, our rental home had three elements familiar to many of us: beach paintings; musty smells; and bookcases of old, out-of-print books. Such bookshelves are a chronicle of decades of New England guests and snapshots of periods in American history. We were immediately drawn toward the hardcovers and paperbacks in our rental cottage.

One title in particular drew our attention: Massachusetts: A Guide to the Pilgrim State, edited by Ray Bearse. It was printed in 1971, the second edition of a book originally commissioned by the WPA in 1937. In the preface, the editor reflects on how much things changed in the time period between the first and second editions. Reading the latter edition forty years after its publication left us equally moved. It not only provided an interesting view of how much things had changed since 1971, but also affirmed how many of those things we hold so dear remain constant. But with the book in our hands we asked: Who put this on the bookshelf in Chatham? Why did they come to New England? What happened to the author? Why did he choose to write about Massachusetts? What other visitors over the years picked up the book? Did the book influence their visit?

Parnassus Book Service

Parnassus Book Service, Yarmouthport, MA

During that same trip, we went to some used bookstores on the Cape hoping to find another copy of the book. Even one of our favorite New England bookstores, Parnassus Book Service in Yarmouthport, MA didn’t have it. After several more attempts we realized our search might be futile, but we finally found the book online, and bought it. At the time of this writing it hadn’t yet arrived, but we know the book will end up on one of our bookshelves. From now on when we remove it from the shelf, we’ll recall our trip to Chatham, reflect on how much Massachusetts has changed, remember a wonderful vacation with family, and savor the smell of just-ground coffee and fresh-baked muffins from the Chatham Village Café where we wrote this story.

-The Two Palaverers

Photo credits: The Two Palaverers

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  1. Ann Nyberg says:

    Love your blog, this is a great post. Most don’t think to look at the book cases in people’s homes let alone think about the stories as to why those books ended up in their homes in the first place. You’re onto something here that could have potential for a screenplay. Think about it.

  2. Thanks Ann. We appreciate your note. As the iPad/Kindle world takes over books (we’re guilty), we’ll lose part of the thread we were trying to pull with this blog post. After writing the piece, we found another out-of-print book about a Boston-area photographer from the late 40s/50s. Not only were we amazed by how well he captured that time period, but we became more curious about who he was. In this case, Google turned up nothing. We’re sure there’s a fascinating story, but what happens when nobody pulls the book off the shelf (in this case a used bookstore in Harwichport, MA) and it ultimately ends up discarded? Will the story end there?

    Love the screenplay idea. Perhaps it would have Christopher Nolan’s Memento angle…

    Regards,
    Rob & Laura

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