Fire on the Shelves


Anne Michael

In mid-July, fellow columnist Paul Clark, in his column, “A Walk Through My Bookshelves,” wrote about the book, The Geography of the Imagination by Guy Davenport, and said that if his bookshelves were on fire he would rescue that book. I found myself, not so much intrigued by book, but by the statement that he would save that particular book. That simple declaration set me thinking.

As is usual for my brain, being ever so slightly twisted, I got a great mental visual of sitting in my family room, the coffee table laid out for tea, a plate of cookies at the ready, my hair done “just so” and wearing a navy blue something so elegantly silk. In this tableau I was reading a novel while my bookshelves crackled merrily behind me consuming only my books, All else was normal in cartoon-like fashion as I sat talking to the dog and stating ever so proudly that I truly do read the hottest books. That quirky little daydream made me laugh out loud.  

All silliness aside, I found myself going through the rest of my day the thinking of all the books I own and wondering exactly what book I would rescue if my house were on fire. The choices are so many. The thought of not being able to take every one of them made me sad since I’d spent so many years acquiring the wonderful tomes on my shelves. I was perplexed; it was not a decision that could be made quickly or simply.

Asking a dozen people I work with what book would they save if their home was on fire, I got a wide range of answers. Some I expected, and some amused me. I did get more than a few “looks” rife with meanings like “The woman is nuts,” or “You can’t be serious?” My impromptu survey garnered multiple answers—family scrap books, the bible or their child’s baby book. A woman named Beth wondered if I didn’t have anything better to do. Lydia stared at me with a look so incredulous I thought her eyes would pop from her head while she stated very plainly that if her house was on fire, she wouldn’t be standing in it deciding which stupid book to take. She even went a step further and reminded me that I could certainly visit the library once I found myself another place to live. (Lydia is ever the practical one.)  

Despite the acerbic advice, the rolling eyes and quickly considered responses to my query I still had to resolve that question for myself. In the ensuing weeks my brain felt as though it was full of ants moving continuously in search of a decision.

I prowled my shelves removing each book, reviewing them one at a time. One of the first I considered in earnest was the Betty Crocker cookbook my mother gave me the evening before I married at 18 years of age since one always needs to eat. It was then I realized I was getting the “house on fire” scenario confused with the “desert isle” scenario in which I would most certainly take a book on boat building if I had one. The rest of my books were eliminated, one by one as I decided that Lydia had a point. I could always go to the library and find something else to read.  Still, there had to be one book that come fire, flood, hurricane evacuation or living in a tent I would find a necessity to rescue.  

The family albums. I would be sad to lose them, but my family lives in my heart and my memories and my thoughts while albums freeze people in time, eliminating that. A lifetime collecting books of photos from my entire life; I have too many, which would I choose?  

After extensive consideration, mulling it over and playing with the idea I had it. I knew beyond doubt the book I would take if my shelves were on fire, that is, if the book itself wasn’t on fire—a dictionary. A certain dictionary. Printed in 1955 with its worn hunter green cover and burgundy leather thumb tabs for each letter of the alphabet, it has been my companion for almost 40 years. I bought it at a flea market for $2.00. It was the first book I bought and truly meant to keep for always. Aside from the fact that it’s got roses pressed in its pages, romantic notes from the days my husband and I were dating, small pictures drawn in crayon from my children when they were small and other tiny mementos of my life, it is full of words that don’t exist in some of the newer dictionaries I’ve acquired over the years. The smell of “old” is in it, the vellum of its pages have faded to the color of a thin crisp sugar cookie, the edges tinged with brown and have the feel of worn velvet.  I admire its heft and feel in my hands, its type size decidedly comfortable for my tired eyes.  

I would rescue this book for no other reason than it is full of words and their meanings—simple words, big words, interesting words, strange words, words I may never use, but words nonetheless. As long as there are words with meanings to be pondered, I will never be bored or lonely. With words lies the ability to communicate and wonder. With words there can always be understanding and connection. Fire can consume the neatly bound words of others on my shelves, or the pictorial history of a family, but words can take us anywhere our hearts, our intellects and our imaginations desire.

At the end of this bit of curious mental play, I can understand the rolling eyes and the wondering if I had better things to do. It occurs to me that I did have lots of other things to do but I chose to take a mental vacation. I had a ball! Paul Clark’s accidental invitation to daydream and play was a fine diversion that that kept everything else that happens in life in perspective.

At age 10, Anne realized she was never going to get to be Miss America since reading a book was not an acceptable talent. So she went on to get a job and raise a family. Along the way, she fixed meals, picked up toys, helped with homework, and collected a drawer full of rejection slips for her “great American novel.” It was not all bad, however, since she ended up wallpapering a closet with them. She currently designs and creates greeting cards for her tiny company, The Frog Prints, LLC, and also works full-time as a Training Specialist. Anne is currently tethered to reality by a loving spouse, two dogs, one cat and the occasional hurricane that blows through Florida, although falling headlong and happily into a book is still her favorite “talent.” She can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  

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