This is Who I Am


Pete Croatto

What bothers me most about the increasing popularity of digital readers like the Kindle is that it turns reading into another technological act; another part of our lives becomes controlled by a screen.

The other side effect is that bookshelves will become increasingly irrelevant. You can learn so much about a person by scanning their bookshelves. And not just the books—the mementos sharing real estate provide interesting details about a life. Reading and its related equipment are surprisingly personal. (Humorist Joe Queenan once said that buying a book for someone is like buying that person underwear.)

I don’t think anyone wants to behold the wonders in my underwear drawer, but I’m happy to give you a tour of my office bookshelves, which contain the majority of my books.


Here’s the establishing shot, so to speak, of my bookcase, which actually consists of three separate bookcases. When my fiancée and I moved in last September, we put them together to form a makeshift wall unit. That’s my office chair in the foreground. A photo of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe—I’m transfixed by the merging of sports and Hollywood royalty—is on the left.

My books are not haphazardly arranged. The left unit consists of unread and borrowed books, though the last two shelves feature Laura’s academic texts. (She’s a college professor and classically trained pianist.) The fourth shelf contains book review possibilities and complimentary DVDs.


Books and DVDs that I’m interested in usually find their way into my desk tray. This is also where I put paperwork for other freelance assignments—it can get crowded pretty quickly.

The tray isn’t anything special. I took it from my dad as an afterthought. The desk, however, is another story. It belonged to my late grandfather. He was a translator for the United Nations and an inveterate reader—his basement housed an impressive private library. I love that desk. It makes me feel like a writer even on days when that distinction feels faulty.

The unread section doesn’t just consist of sports books. I love all kinds of non-fiction, though occasionally I grab a novel. If you look closely you may find the recognizable spines of The Fountainhead and Lonesome Dove. I picked up the latter for a dollar donation at the local supermarket.

Though I do get books as gifts and from publishers, I rarely go on a spending spree at my local bookstore. Where do I get them? Library sales, flea markets, book fairs, garage sales, thrift stores, used book stores, my gym, stoops. I also check out a lot of books from the library. The only time I buy books at Barnes & Noble and its ilk is when I have a gift card.

The middle section houses general reference books (first shelf), while the second through fifth shelves contain books on film and popular culture, which come in handy for film writing. Roger Ebert, my literary hero and biggest influence, is a dominant presence here. The last shelf features unread books from nonfiction masters like Joan Didion, Tracy Kidder, and Richard Ben Cramer. One of the key ways I’ll improve as a writer is by reading people who are more skilled than I.


This is also where we start finding the personal flourishes. Starting on the left, you’ll see a Bob’s Big Boy piggy bank that was a gift from my brother. Then there’s a handmade bowl that I picked up while visiting a friend in Hawaii. On the far right side is an invitation and program from my brother's wedding.

On top of the shelf are postcards of two Mets classics: Shea Stadium and outfielder Mookie Wilson. The framed photo is of Howard Johnson, my favorite Met as a kid, picked up at a thrift store. Mookie’s postcard is propped by three baseball VHS tapes that I watched repeatedly as a kid, including That Ball’s Outta Here: The Mike Schmidt Story. Mike Schmidt is my all-time favorite ballplayer. The right unit features a figurine and an autographed baseball.

The next shelf includes one of my favorite mementos. See the cover art for SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2? In 2004, I actually reviewed that movie. One of my lines was that it had “no redeeming qualities.” Apparently Malaysian DVD bootleggers don’t have a good understanding of English. That blurb made it to the back of the box. Someone sent me the PDF, which my brother then pasted on a DVD case.


Moving on down, you’ll find more pieces of me: The drum on the left was the first Christmas gift my fiancée ever gave me. I took lessons for a year or so and even owned a drum kit at one point—the recession of 2008 took care of that. That also explains the figurine of Animal from The Muppet Show.

And, yes, I love American Pie.


Here’s the last section of the bookcase, which is my favorite. This is where my sports books reside. The first two shelves contain stuff I’ve read and loved. On the first shelf you’ll find my prized baseball collection. The one on the left—a memento of a game-saving Little League catch—is 25 years old. When I went to bed that night, I slept with the ball.

The second shelf features a Magic Johnson-signed promotional postcard (a trade show souvenir procured by a colleague) and my report on how to fix major league baseball—written in the ninth grade.


Drop a level and you’ll find a collection of old baseball cards that my brother found inside an old book (we briefly worked together at a used bookstore), my old Borders ID, and a baseball mitt business card holder (a gift from my mom).  One of the loveliest things on the shelf is a soccer card featuring Laura—as an adorably chubby ten-year-old.


Shelves three and four feature unread sports books. Books that are read immediately get shifted to the read section. The third shelf features a Willis Reed nesting doll, picked up during a lunchtime shopping break years ago, and my stash of bookmarks.  The fifth and sixth shelves house mostly general non-fiction that I’ve read and enjoyed. A very nice memento there is an autographed copy of Susan Orlean’s The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. (She’s very nice, by the way.)   

This is the personal side of reading that technology cannot replace. These books and these shelves and these objects define me. Does your Kindle have that capability? Does your Nook have that function? That’s why I will always have bookshelves. Reading isn’t a distraction or a hi-tech curiosity. It’s who I am.

Books listed in this column:
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (Signet, 1993)
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty (Pan Books New Ed Edition, 1990)
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People (Random House, 2001)

Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, AMC, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and The Weekender, and maintains a movie blog. A longtime Mets fan, Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA, which is Phillies territory. Pray for him. Contact Pete.



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