WHEN I WAS A YOUNG INTERN at the Atlanta Constitution many years ago, the television critic returned from a California junket where reporters had been invited to tour the Malibu home of Larry Hagman, then at the height of his Dallas fame. (I said it was many years ago.) The critic laughed at how the writers had formed a line at Hagman’s bookshelves and begun jotting down the titles, keen to find any detail that would make their stories distinctive.
But I absorbed a different message: Your bookshelves define you. People walk into your home and create a narrative of who you are based on the books on display.
And for more than 30 years, across eight moves and four states, I was in thrall to that idea. My bookshelves, c’est moi. Look how erudite I am, how eclectic! That one course in 18th- and early 19th-century Russian lit helped a lot there. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are commonplace, but what about Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time?
I left college with at least six cartons of books, moving to Texas to work at newspapers where I initially made very little money. But that didn’t stop me from acquiring more books. In Waco, I bought them from secondhand stores and the remaindered table at B. Dalton at the mall. In San Antonio, I patronized Rosengren’s; when Rosengren’s went out of business, I bought some of their shelves to hold my burgeoning collection. I bought books i