Skinny Books, Dust, Dandelions, Sneezes, Apple Cake and Inspiration



The other day, with many tasks calling to me, I decided to spend the afternoon doing something that is a ritual task-avoidance activity of mine, something not on any of my To-Do lists: I decided to move books from one place in my house to another place. I do this from time to time; my husband is used to it and he just rolls his eyes and ignores my sneezing (dust) and my talking to myself (about how silly I am to be doing it when I have so much else to do.) Several months ago, we had to eliminate an entire set of bookcases to make room for french doors out to the deck. Total chaos! It seems I’m always carrying big bunches of books from one place to another.

and more books....

and more books spilling over….

When I say “big bunches,” I mean big. This time around, I moved my collection of poetry (about 400 books) from the living room to my study. Why? Well, I didn’t want to do anything on my To-Do list, that was probably the biggest motivator. And I had been looking for some time at how messy the poetry books were.

and the poetry books....

and some of the poetry books….

Minus the Collected Works of someone, and minus anthologies, poetry books are a skinny lot – many don’t even have 1/2-inch spines, and they’re visually “busy”  compared to fiction (which took poetry’s place in the living room.) Fiction is less cluttered, less multitudinous, less random in its trim sizes. The effect of a house over-filled with books is not always calming, and I was going for calm.

and books on chairs...

and more poetry books in stacks and more books on chairs…

No matter what the motivation was, I found myself with stacks and stacks of books, wondering yet again (as I do periodically) about how to organize the poetry. Fiction, no problem – I do it alphabetically. But with poetry I wonder if the  alphabet of last names should prevail.  There are other possibilities on any given shelf of my poetry bookcases:

1. Poets I love 2. Poets who loved each other. 3. Poets by the century in which they lived. 4. Poets by the places they lived – England, France, Russia, Spain, (maybe a shelf of everything in translation?) and the American South, New England, the American West – poets known as “regional.” 5. Poets who have won the Nobel Prize or have entered “the canon.” 6. Poets who are private little discoveries of mine, or so I think. 7. Poets who are friends of mine. 8. Poetry reviews in which I have poems of my own. 9. Poetry criticism by poets. 10.Poetry criticism by non-poets. 11. Big anthologies. 12. Miscellaneous (sometimes, my favorite category – unclassifiable.

In the end, after all the pondering, the alphabet prevailed, except for a few I like to keep handy on my desk.

and a few books on a messy desk....

and more books on a messy desk….

When I’m looking for something, I want to find it fast, so practicality won the day. Admitting this makes me feel slightly ashamed, but there it is. I do manage to keep a few special old books around the house.

and books with hands....

and old books next to old hands….

For one afternoon of carrying great bundles of books from one room to another, thinking about ways these writers related to each other (Should I put Ted Hughes’s Collected Works next to Sylvia Plath’s? Raymond Carver’s next to Tess Gallagher’s? Should I make sure the Welsh and Irish poets do not get mixed in with the English?) and ways I related to them (Do I really love W. H. Auden enough to add him to the shelf with Seamus Heaney and Richard Wilbur? Do I love Walter de la Mare in the same way I love C.K. Williams or Robert Graves?)…for that time of pondering, I was gloriously lost in the world of poetry.

and special books....

and a lion and a foot and complete set of The English Poets, of course……

I opened quite a few books and read a poem or two or ten. And I was inspired. How wonderful to be a poet – that’s what I was thinking at the end of the day.

So I sat down and wrote a poem.

Moral of the story? Avoiding your To-Do list (“Write!”) does not always mean you’re being unproductive. It doesn’t mean you’re wasting time, not always, not if what you have in front of you (a good book…or 400 good books!) inspires you. And inspiration doesn’t always come from something intellectual – not always a book. It could come while your surveying the almost-spring garden, Sometimes it come when you’re in the kitchen – the color of an apple or the smell of an apple cake makes you feel creative and makes you sit down to write a picture book (yes, Julie Paschkis, I mean you.)

I honestly believe that everything a writer does is a source of inspiration. Moving books from one room to another, baking a cake, playing the ukulele, drawing, reading a personal essay in The Threepenny Review (oh, it is so good),  pulling dandelions, pruning a tree, taking a walk, talking to a neighbor. Don’t feel guilty when you spend time not writing. Eventually, the desire to write will overwhelm you – when it does, pay close attention. Heed the call.  Do it. Write. Let it take you over completely.

The author Gordon Lish, photographed by Bill Hayward

And an author and his book (Gordon Lish, photographed by Bill Hayward)

You might not be prolific if you follow my advice. But you’ll stay engaged with the world of real people and real objects. Engagement – that’s a good goal, and I think it’s what makes for good writing – and a good life.  Touch things, move things, make music, bake things, get your hands dirty, unsettle the dust, sneeze.

and books that need dusting! (Achoo! Salud!)

…and books that need dusting! – on my To-Do list!

Then come back to your writing, inspired.


80 responses to “Skinny Books, Dust, Dandelions, Sneezes, Apple Cake and Inspiration

  1. Sarah Lamstein

    Beautiful, Julie! Thank you!!!!!!!

  2. Love this, Julie! Thank you.

  3. Loved this entry! Am passing on to our poetry ‘guru’ here at the library. Meanwhile, a related quote:
    Procrastination means you know what you need to do and you don’t do it. If you don’t know what to do, you aren’t procrastinating. You are thinking.
    ~Lynn Lively, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Success

  4. And one more:
    Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.
    ~Sir John Lubbock

  5. Thanks, Abby and Sarah.

    And thank you for that Lubbock quotation, Lizzy – I’m going to put it to music and hum it the next time I lie in the grass looking up at the clouds (it might be awhile before I get to do that in Seattle, but I can already smell the new-cut grass and feel the sunshine on my face….)

  6. Pamela Armstrong

    Thank you Laura…I have the same dilemma with fabrics; by color? weight? season? how much I love it? how will I ever find it again? My mentor, Barry Berkus, believed that every experience of life was reflected in his architecture; and that houses should tell the stories of those who live in them, which has become my design philosophy as well.

  7. Love love love this post. Thank you for sharing, Julie. And might I come just prowl around in your house for a couple of days? I’ll be quiet and I don’t require a lot of maintenance. I’ll put the books back where I found them, after wallowing in a stack or two….

  8. Happy to see the sunny face of The Poetry Friday Anthology in your pile! And Nancy Bo Flood’s COWBOY UP (or at least the COW), such an excellent addition to many categories: multicultural children’s poetry, poems for boys, poems about sports. (Congratulations on its dedication to you!)

  9. I wish non-writers understood this before laughing at our wide definition of ‘inspiration’.

  10. This was beautifully written and reminded me yet again how much I love books and writing! And it’s so true how inspiration can come in the most unexpected of ways… 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing and congrats on being freshly pressed!

  11. I agree- inspiration comes from every part of life. It’s all “grist for the mill” as they say.

    And I’ve always favored arranging my books alphabetically by author, personally. It makes things easy to find (within genres, of course)

  12. Such a beautiful post! I love rearranging books and pondering placement. Sigh.

  13. Thank you for this wonderful post, Julie. I’m printing it out and hanging it in my writing room.

  14. Hi Julie,
    I have so many bunches of books around me in my house that I am so glad to see that I am not alone. I am scared now with technology the books will go away. I sure hope not! Thanks for sharing you awesome blog.

  15. Julie, you’re inspiring, always. Thanks.

  16. I always find that organizing can provide great inspiration!

  17. I can so relate to this! Sadly my house is not big enough to contain as many books as yours, but my books definitely have an avoidance role in my life. Loved this post. And, I agree, good thinking and/or writing always comes from it.

  18. Spending quality time with those things you love seems like a perfectly practical and justified use of your time and energy. I feel like I know your books as friends now, some of whom I’ve never met and am now anxious to become acquainted with. Thank you for the introduction and tour.

  19. Whoa…. *Drools* Holy book heaven!! I enjoyed reading your post and think you made a good point when you said. ‘books are calming… but clutterful’… well, you didn’t really say that, but I got that impression.

  20. loved it. so inspiring. so engaging. so real. so me.
    gorgeous. thank you for sharing your honest writing. it is enchanting. well done and congratulations!

  21. Nice entry, Julie. I particularly loved the line “I honestly believe that everything a writer does is a source of inspiration.”
    How on earth could you collect those books!!

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  23. azeliaaqmarina

    How meaningful this entry is. My entries seems like garbage now compared to yours.

  24. Ah, Nature abhors a horizontal surface. That’s why we put books on them!
    ~The Computer Cat

  25. Love your blog! Take a look around mine, maybe something will spark your interest and you’ll follow me! Hope to hear from you soon!

  26. A wonderful write. Somehow, imparted peace to my turbulant mind!

  27. For some it is shoes, some purses, other it’s the cars or the clothes, for me…it’s always books, stationery, coffee…I love this post…the words, the pictures, I can almost feel the textures of the covers on the old books and the grit of the dust… ❤

  28. What a great idea! I should move books around more.

  29. Great post! I have a bit of writers block (is that made up)…maybe I’ll move some of my own books…. ;-D

  30. LOVED this post. I am insanely jealous of your house of books — so far I have around three hundred books, but I’m sure when I’m old enough to get my own house (I’m currently 17), I will expand that collection massively. Nice to see that someone else thinks about organising them in that way, too. And your old books are very pretty. I’ve got a few, mainly in a state of great disrepair, but the majority of my books are standard paperbacks. I confess to being, like you, the kind of person who frequently moves books around. I always reorganise mine when I tidy my room, even though it’s usually unnecessary.
    Congrats on Freshly Pressed, by the way, while I’m here!

  31. I enjoyed the post, and especially these lines, “Engagement – that’s a good goal, and I think it’s what makes for good writing – and a good life. Touch things, move things, make music, bake things, get your hands dirty, unsettle the dust, sneeze.”

  32. Books! such a beautiful sight. I don’t feel complete with out my books, I love to have knowledge close at hand. To be greeted by them from room to room. I feel the minds of the authors reaching out to me as I recognize each cover and title. So many souls, they are such a comfort. Organizing can be a bear though, It is a true labor of love.

  33. A good read, I enjoyed the visit to your blog. I love re-arranging my books, I have limited space, so need to find room for my new favorites all the time.

  34. Thanks to all who visited Books Around the Table in the last few days and who enjoyed the post. Thanks also to Cheri Lucas at WordPress whose Freshly Pressed team brought the post to people’s attention. My fellow Books Around the Table bloggers and I have been amazed by the response, and we hope you keep reading our blog. Personally, I just want to say that it’s good to know there are so many people out there who love books – beautiful, physical, hold-them-in-your-hand books – as much as I do, and who find inspiration in the smallest, unlikeliest places. Keep it up!

  35. Enjoyed…
    If you get a chance…my post of March 21 – ‘Retail Therapy at Home’ …check out the last image of my post…we have a lot in common! 🙂
    Love your blog!

  36. Beautiful post.
    I used to have lots of books but I gave most of them to a used bookstore. I know this is a travesty and part of me misses them, but I think it was the right choice for me. I do envy your collection though.

  37. Very well writen good job*_*

  38. This was such a brilliant post, I really enjoyed immersing myself in something written by another which spoke so clearly of my own experience. I love poetry and was grinning and sighing and wanting to say out loud ‘I understand!’ as you considered the different ways you might organise your poetry books. And a big AMEN to time not writing NOT always being a waste of time. Great writing, wonderful sentiments, touched me heart and soul. Thank you:-)

  39. davidmichaels20

    Beautiful book collection. I think of handling books as a form of meditation…(At least that’s what I tell myself!)

  40. Love this! Makes me want to go through my books!! I am also going to send this along to my daughter who is an avid book collector herself and spends hours arranging and rearranging her books!

  41. Now that is nice too see! Love books! And love your writing!

  42. Books are always a way to avoid anything ha! great post.

  43. I am extremely jealous of your collection of books! I myself am in the business of inspiring children to write..

    Miss Sykes

  44. I am also a book lover, and I feel great when I see all my shelves stacked up in order 🙂

  45. Three of my favorite things: Organization, procrastination, and books. Looks like a fun day. haha

  46. Loved this. Thank you.
    (I’m a storyteller and finding a system to organize the tales I collect is hard in a similar way.)

  47. wow!!
    beautiful post. Thank You

  48. I like the idea of finding inspiration in the color of an apple!

  49. This is the best bit of wisdom about writing I think I have ever seen. Yes, stay engaged with the real world and real people. That is where inspiration comes from. Thanks.

  50. Engagement. That is the point. I like my collection. I try to area ge then by author, but I also seperate them by decade of publication. Old books have there own shelves. I am moving books from my office to the living room to make room for baby boy-no name-yet.

  51. Great post! And it’s amazing what can be serendipitously found in one’s own book collection – inspirational in lateral ways. In our household, a lot of books have to be kept in tubs, just now…shelving is at an absolute premium and actually finding books is always an adventure. Often I’ll dig through a tub and find something else, which sidetracks me. But it’s all good.

  52. Sometimes it’s the subtle details that make things extraordinary. Great post! 🙂

  53. I think you’re right when you say that you never do waste time. I love writing, but sometimes I just feel like something’s missing. I feel like my story needs to be written at a time when I have all the tools I need. If something’s missing you better wait and have faith.

  54. How wonderful – I recently sorted books given to me from my great great aunt and grandparent (now long gone) – I felt swept back in time as I sucked in the ages of publication dates – books are amazing and often so so surprising 🙂

  55. I totally agree. Books do not a calm room make. There’s just too many ideas and stories in them! But they look pretty…

  56. hmmmm!!! great stuff of books over here…
    i liked it very much.,.,.,.,.,!!!!

  57. oh! how jealous I am here because you have such a huge collection of books. =)

  58. I love what you mentioned when you talked about how important it is to be engaged. People who write poems may have the tendency to be withdrawn and live in their inner world, dwell on the plane of the abstract, and be preoccupied with their own thoughts and longings (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Those engaging things you’ve mentioned (moving things around, organizing books, etc) can be a source of inspiration. This seems like a good idea. Thanks soo much.

  59. ah, I am indulging by reading other peoples posts about books at the moment, as I am currently facing a dilemma of how to slim down my large collection of books to put them in storage ready for later emigration…I love them all, but I know realistically I should only take the ones that are part of a proper collection and not the ones I have also just accumulated as summer reading material or the odd whimsical distraction and have never read again!
    but they are still books, and still adding to the sum of the whole…argh! kindle is just not the same as holding those lovely pages.

  60. I think i just fell in love with your stack of books. I don’t read much poetry though.

  61. Beautiful and brilliant post 🙂 Thanks for sharing, I really enjoyed reading it!! I wish one day I will end up with 400 books. You should dedicate one big room (and call it your mini library) just for your books. I want to do that eventually 🙂

  62. Seems like lot of books to me.
    I always question owning hell lot of books,in a good sense, if we really go through the pile of books/movies we own, at-least 30% of it can be categorized as ‘there is no way i am reading/watching this one again’,another 15% ‘i might read/watch this, but we never do’.
    Just checking isn’t it better that we take these out and get new ones which might be more interesting,purging is needed.
    However you made this cleaning and arranging act into an interesting post and that’s all matters.
    Another brilliant post : Keep writing.

  63. Do you ever consider thinning out your books..? I know it’s regarded as sacrilegious, but there’s no way you’ll ever read 400 books of poetry again. Is there?

    • I don’t read through my poetry books from cover to cover, Kate. Usually, there are a few poems in each book that I love and return to again and again (great poems improve and illuminate with each reading) – and I want my favorite poems in books on my shelves, not in computer files. And many – many! – of my poetry books are signed first-editions because I’ve met the poets over the years, or signed because they’re friends of mine. I like to imagine that I’ll give my children some, and their children others – that’s the way family libraries used to grow. Or I’ll donate them to the University library of the city library’s Special Collections department when it’s time.

      For those of you who think this is about hoarding, 400 poetry books don’t take up as much space as you might think – I mentioned that in the post. They’re skinny. My collection takes up about eighteen feet of shelving – six shelves, three feet wide – so just one bookcase, ceiling to floor. I’m a poet, and there’s not only a personal but a professional reason to collect these books. I figure it’s at least as good as collecting salt & pepper shakers, no? The books that take up the most space (beside art books) are my fiction books – and those I should thin, it’s true, because there are only a handful that I return to often. Problem is, I think every house with well-educated people in it should have certain books – certain classics. Why keep Moby Dick? I’ll never read it again, but I think I should own it. Call me crazy.

      Besides, as the post indicates, what would I do to procrastinate if I didn’t have my books to move around?

      I think of my books as ballast – they keep me balanced and afloat. From what I’ve seen of HOARDERS on TV, books are not usually the problem. Old used cans of cat food and collections of empty Cool Whip containers are.

      • Ha ha! Great response! I only wrote my comment because (and I apologise for this) I was feeling all self-satisfied because I recently thinned my books down from 25 shelves to 15, without losing anything good.

        Having said that, I too have kept the Classics, even though I won’t read them again. 😦 I guess I’m still worrying that visitors will judge me by my bookshelves if they are filled with the stuff I love – usually self-help books promising impossible results, or light comedies – rather than Dickens, Donne and their ilk.

        Sigh. Hey, I need a new self-help book, How Not To Care What Others Think of Your Reading Habits, in 30 Seconds or Less.

        Thanks for replying! Enjoy your collection. I hope it brings you joy and a sense of bring grounded for many years to come.

  64. Wow a lot of books!!! And I thought I was a horder of books… Guess I’m not… Only one bookshelf with all kinds of books… Only one on poetry… Mostly kids books and others

  65. I enjoyed this post. I organize my alphabetically, except for the poetry journals which are pretty much in disorder in a box under my desk. To be a writer of any kind, you do need to spend lots of time well, writing. But I find I get the most inspiration when I am not writing at all. Ideas come to me most easily when I am doing yard work -planting flowers, fertilizing and trimming trees and bushes – good old fashioned kind of stuff.

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  67. Hehe I work in a library and have considered going by the Dewey decimal system 🙂

  68. “Why keep Moby Dick? I’ll never read it again, but I think I should own it. Call me crazy. ”

    Why not? I’m crazy, too.

  69. Julie, I’m so glad I took a moment to do something ‘not on my list’ which was to read your ‘real slice of a writer’s life’! I AM inspired and feel so validated! A writer’s truth will evoke that from me! And the artful relationship you have with your books brings out another dimension of their reality! Thank you!

  70. Thank you, i really enjoyed this. Our collections are organized by the order we fell in love with each one and they don’t all make it to the shelf, either; in our house, an inch is roughly a week of reading… a foot is almost a month of silent book love.

  71. Wonderful world experience. And it’s beneficial for all who have work to do college students, writers, business owners, truck drivers, farmers, and all . . . growth comes from purpose and true purpose comes with doing more than one thing.

  72. I have at least 1500 books, possibly more, and I know that when I move house at the end of next month, I’m going to have to do some major reorganizing. But the trouble with trying to organize books is that one invariably starts reading them, on the spot. And then, a couple of hours later, one realizes that one has made no progress at all in the business of reorganization.

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