Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Bookshelf, and a Bittersweet Chocolate Tart

When I was younger, my dreams were filled with libraries.  I'd always been a reader, bending over my literary contraband until the light was too dim to read, knowing that I couldn't be caught with a flashlight; but it was libraries and bookstores that really captured my imagination: places where walls of stories and ideas literally surrounded you.  It wasn't until high school, though, that I started to realize I could live in my own library.  After shuttling shopping bags full of reading material back and forth from their house for me, my English teachers had invited me for an overnight visit so that I could come browse for myself.  I remember my astonishment when I realized that an entire room in their home was dedicated to mysteries, another to literary fiction, a nook to children's literature, a corner to miscellany like radios and camping.

As a misfit adolescent, I found solace in their private library; I imagined my own home, the place where I'd settle one day, a place where shelves of books dominated the walls.  In my teachers' house, I learned to read bookshelves as a window into the intellectual and spiritual lives of book owners.  Later, in graduate school, I would scan the titles on shelves in new places, head cocked sideways, looking for clues, finding myself in their intellectual wanderings, but also finding welcome novelty and difference.  People who lived in houses lined with well-loved books were the people I most wanted to be, the people I wanted to befriend.  The shelves were, in some profound way, metonyms for their owners.

I worked diligently at building my own library.  Over the years, I accumulated books like some people accumulate jewelry: high school literature surveys, college reading assignments, the literary theory of my first graduate school career, the sociology and philosophy and historical texts of my second.  When I returned to New Jersey from Los Angeles, my books took up most of the space in the moving truck.  Some of them were my trophies, but more of them--even the ones that collected dust--were my most reliable friends, the one constant thing in a life of flux.  Like the shelves I read in the homes I visited, my books represented me.

And like me, eventually, they learned to share space.  For a while, my books coexisted uneventfully with my husband's (engineering, science fiction, outdoors, mountain guides) in marriage.  They occupied unequally divided real estate on the shelves, but neither of us seemed to mind.

Then we had children.

It started with a concern for the books: we moved things up out of reach, gave things away, wanting to put our children's toys within their grasp, wanting to avoid telling them not to touch.  Though our bookshelves were still largely bookshelves, with adult books, as my children's toys and books started taking up a little more space, I began to winnow out the things I no longer read, telling myself that they could find kinder  homes elsewhere.  I worried a little bit more about making sure that I didn't hog the available shelf space from my husband, like a thoughtful partner might worry about hogging the marital bed.  Each year, some of my books would find their way to the Friends of the Library Book Sale; I wondered who bought them, where they ended up.  Still, I didn't feel that I'd sacrificed my house of books for my offspring.

When I left my job in June 2011, I brought home the books I'd accumulated in my office.  They'd been the hardest thing to pack; somehow, removing my books from those shelves represented the finality of my decision.  I no longer belonged there.  At home, after I unloaded my mini-library, our quarters felt cramped.  For a while, the books lay stacked on the floor, a representation of something abandoned.  Finally, reluctantly, I found spaces for most of them among the others, stacking them horizontally, in precarious places, as if they never really quite belonged.

Last year, in December and January, after two years of job hunting with no promising leads, I decided that I'd no longer need any of these books: my career was dead, and I was not the intellectual or professional I pretended to be.  I no longer cared about ideas, or words, or language, or anything.  In my sweatpants and fraying sweaters, I ravaged the fortress of paperbacks and hardcovers that had defined me and protected me, purging relentlessly.  Boxes of books made their way to my town library for sale, or for recycling.  On one trip downtown, the head librarian peered into the box and gasped audibly.  "But ... your Nortons," he said.  "Are you sure?"

My Norton Anthologies.  Yes, I was sure.  I was trying, desperately, but carefully, perhaps not even entirely consciously, to erase myself.  The books I kept on our shelves at home were thoughtfully chosen, things that I imagined perhaps my children could use some day, or the stories I loved too much to give away.  At one point, after dropping off the last boxes, I found myself in tears.

Mostly, I stopped reading.

Thankfully, I applied for one more job.

This summer, I started doing fellowship advising in an international programs unit.  My trailer office had a single flimsy metal bookcase, which remained mostly empty, but I brought a few travel books from home, and tentatively shelved them there.  Maybe they would inspire my students to explore the great unknown.  Maybe they would inspire me.

Two months later, through an astounding series of fortunate events, I started another job.  In an office with a large leaded glass window, and wooden overhead built-in bookshelf.

The secretary asked me if I needed help moving from my trailer.  My books, she said.  I shook my head.  I had nothing to move.  I joked about it over the next few weeks as I gradually transitioned to my new light-filled space, but the truth is that I felt a great longing for the books I'd thrown away.  One wall of my boss' office is filled with books, floor to ceiling, and an entire store room in the basement of one of the buildings at our college is filled with boxes of his personal library.  In the faculty master's office, books from across the disciplines dominate the walls, and cover every surface.  In his house across the street, there are three--no, four--entire walls of books.  I mourned for my own lost library, the artefacts of my past lives.  Proof that I existed, intellectually, in another time and space.  But I was relieved, too, to miss that part of myself, when in the darkest months of the past two years, I thought for sure it was dead.


Two weeks ago, I turned 40.  And I posted this request to Facebook: for this milestone birthday, send me the name of your favorite book.  To rebuild my library with friends, and friends of friends.  The names, and in some cases, the books themselves, came tumbling in, with stories about their discovery: the best, most treasured kinds of gifts.

I love my new office, and my new job.  My bookshelf remains mostly empty, but I know that this will change, over time; the ideas and stories will come again, accumulating gradually, as good libraries do, both enlarging and revealing the intellectual and spiritual lives of their owners.  And though the losing and the finding has been bittersweet, though I still have space to fill, in the end, I feel like I'm home.

What's your favorite book?  And what's your story about discovering it?  What does your library say about you?

Bittersweet Chocolate Tart

9 (5- by 2 1/4-inch) chocolate graham crackers
5 T. unsalted butter, melted
1/4 c. sugar

For filling:
1 1/4 c. heavy cream
9 oz. bittersweet chocolate (less than 65% cacao), chopped
2 large eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
1/4 t. salt

For glaze:
2 T. heavy cream
1 3/4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 t. light corn syrup
1 T. warm water

Preheat oven to 350F.

In a food processor or blender, process the graham crackers and sugar until the crackers are finely ground.  Add melted butter and process until thoroughly combined.  Press the crust mixture evenly into a 9" tart pan, taking care to create a 3/4" rim.  Bake crust until firm, about 10 minutes. Cool 15 to 20 minutes.

Place the chocolate in a medium sized heatproof bowl.  Bring 1 1/4 c. cream to a boil, then pour over 9 oz. chocolate and let stand 5 minutes. Gently stir until smooth.  In a separate small bowl, whisk together eggs, vanilla, and salt, then stir into melted chocolate.  Pour filling into cooled crust.

Bake until the filling is set around the edges but center is still wobbly, 20 to 25 minutes. (The center will continue to set as the tart cools.) Cool completely in pan on rack, about 1 hour.

To make the glaze, bring 2 T. cream to a boil and remove from heat. Stir in 1 3/4 oz. chocolate until smooth. Stir in corn syrup, then warm water.  It will be fairly runny; don't let this trouble you, since it, too, will harden as it cools.

Pour the glaze over the tart (which should be at room temperature), then tilt and rotate the pan to coat the top of tart evenly. Let stand until glaze is set, about 1 hour.

Garnish with fresh raspberries and freshly made lightly sweetened whipped cream.
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  1. See, this is why I hate Kindles. You can't browse your friends' digital bookshelves.

  2. I had to get rid of most of my books when I moved. there was just no room. My most sacred of of my library are in my mom's attic at the moment, a lot of yoga books. My favorite all time fiction? The Corrections by Johnathan Franznick. That would definitely go to the desert island with me if I had to choose only 3!

  3. I LOVE books. I don't think I could ever pin point my absolute favorite but I have some that I love more than others. I also love accumulating books but living in very small apartments I've had to learn to purge them. In my house I have a few different "kinds" of books and I try to get rid of some from every section every few months or so. Now I buy most books for my kindle (on my phone) so I don't have to deal with them physically. What bothers me most about that is that I can't lend them out (or give them away) when I'm done. That is a real negative to electronic books (in my humble opinion).

    As far as the "kinds" of books I have, most of them fall into the following categories: teaching aids (these are mostly stored at school where I have way more space--lord knows what I'll do if I ever leave my job), self-help books (or which there are personal (mostly having to do with depression/anxiety and meditation/spiritual enlightenment) and parenting, then there is a huge section of Spanish language novels, then a smaller section of English language novels and then comic TPBS (trade paperbacks, or bound collections of the single issues that were released previously) and graphic novels.

    My parents have a huge library at their house and I used to babysit for a family that had an inside porch with an entire wall dedicated to their library. The porch had doors leading to both girls' room and I loved imaging them meeting their in the night when they were older. They ended up selling the house when the girls were still in preschool and I literally cried over the realization that they'd never get to have clandestine meetings in that porch, to read books their parents had stored there.

    I'm sorry you felt the need to give so many of your books away, right on the eve (unbeknownst to you) of your new employment. It's hard to let things go, especially books, but I also think it can be freeing. I too give my books to our local library to be sold for a very fair price and I like to think that they find new homes there where they are wanted and needed (to those who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford them). I have bought many books at that same library and I like the thought of giving back there. I know the pregnancy/parenting/infertility books leave the shelves especially fast and I like knowing they continue to be used long after I need them. I'm sure you feel the same.

  4. I have been through some painful book purges also, with several international and cross-country moves over the last two decades. Sigh.

    Anyway, my #1 recommendation: The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh.

  5. OK. For MY birthday, I want you to come make me that tart. Goodness, am I slobbering.

    Love this: "I was erase myself." I love it because in some ways I am there now.

    Books I love? There are so many. A few that come to mind are The Game of God and the Piers Anthony series of 7 books called the Incarnations of Immortality.


  6. Love this post!! Trying to decide on my favourite book would be like trying to decide on my favourite child. Dh & I have tons of books. They have outgrown the bookshelves & are stacked in piles on the floor of our bedroom & basement. I've made the sad decision that I really need to weed through them soon... but it's so hard to do.

  7. I came to your blog through the BlogHer post on Cinderella, but this is the one that got me.

    A few years ago I left the classroom. (High school English) I didn't go far; I became an instructional coach to other teachers. This fall, though, I stepped away further, becoming a school librarian. As I moved offices, I considered all the teaching books I'd accumulated that I hadn't once opened in the 4 years since I stopped teaching kids. Some are now dated. Others just aren't relevant to what I do any more. I felt both conflicted and lightened as I boxed them up to give away.

    I think, often, we need to shed the stuff of a previous life before we can move into a new one. I was just so glad to read this and know that I'm not the only one who has had this kind of experience with books! I am sure that your shelves will fill quickly than you can imagine. :-)


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