Charmed Objects


Our Daily Correspondent


An example of a Phantom Shelf. Credit: EM Photography

People talk about a “Keeper Shelf” for those books they love more than any others. Those which, I suppose, are worth owning in this time when owning a physical book means something more than it once did. (Or, as much as it once did.) For my money, though, there is no better proof of love for a title than not owning it—that is to say, having given it away. Call it the Phantom Shelf.

When my coffers are in a particularly robust state, I will sometimes indulge in the extravagance of replenishing those favorite books I am most inclined to give away. It is always the same few—titles that I need to share with someone like-minded, right now!—and by the same token, those which I always miss when they are gone. They are, in alphabetical order:

  • Pitch Dark, by Renata Adler
  • Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns
  • Don’t Look Now, by Daphne du Maurier (specifically for the novella “Monte Verità”)
  • In Love, by Alfred Hayes
  • A Girl in Winter, by Philip Larkin
  • Climates, by André Maurois
  • After Claude, by Iris Owens
  • Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym
  • Loitering with Intent, by Muriel Spark

In the nonfiction category, I can’t seem to hold onto Stevie Smith’s Cats in Colour, Among the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson, E. B. White’s collected essays, and The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll by Jean Nathan. 

I don’t know why this should be so: There are plenty of titles I would recommend—Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea; Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment; Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, Shirley Jackson. Yet in each case, I still retain my original copy; I have had to replace each of the others at least twice.

It is always nice to give someone the treat of a great read; there is no storyteller like du Maurier, and so many people stop at Rebecca! It was pure chance that I didn’t myself! Sometimes you are trying to give not just the book but the author—when you recommend Excellent Women or Who Was Changed or the Spark, you are really recommending every book that each of them has ever written. It could as well be A Few Green Leaves or The Ballad of Peckham Rye. Sometimes it is needing desperately to share the vocabulary of a book, or even the book’s flaws—to burst with the desire to analyze the characters of Climates, or to know without having to talk about it just how messed up the whole Lonely Doll story really is. (In fairness, I also feel this way about Scotty Bowers’s Full Service, but I understand this to be a more rarified taste.)

I love to give things away, to a degree I am not sure is healthy. Not just books—music, food, clothes. Few leave my home empty-handed, whether or not they want to. I like to share my enthusiasms. Now that I think about it, it is possibly pathological, maybe malevolent. Maybe I want to magically sneak into their homes, charming my books like genii. Maybe a part of me is just a megalomaniacal dictator who wants to impose a twee, mandated groupthink on everyone I encounter. (Although I must say, a world of people shouting—or blogging—about dollhouses and food all the time sounds nightmarish.)

But don’t people like getting recommendations? I don’t mean those things others think one ought to love (See: Dud Avocado, The), but those things about which they are genuinely passionate? It is a window into who another person is. And how else, after all, does anyone learn about anything? I’m eager to hear about others’ favorites, in any case, and hope you don’t mind. I’ll exert benevolent control, I promise. I won’t even make you read Full Service.