In the section of my Sunday paper where they show you the furniture, wallpaper, bedrooms and bathrooms you should have in your house -- but wouldn't want in your house -- a decorator named Billy Baldwin was quoted as saying, "The best decoration in the world is a room full of books." At least I agreed with something in the section.
Margie has bought paintings, chosen wallpaper, spent money on good rugs and hung colorful curtains. However, the most decorative things in our house are the books that line the walls of our bedroom and living room.
Like so many things in my life, I enjoy just having them. I don't have to read the books to take pleasure from their presence. Some I have not opened in years. They are very much like the woodworking tools I own and the collection of lumber I have stacked in my shop and my garage. I like the look of them, the smell of them, the touch of them. And every time I look up from my chair or pass by on the way in or out of the room and notice the name of a book I've read and loved, there is, just for an instant, a pleasant flood of memory recalling everything I liked about it.
I feel sorry for people who don't know good food, good music, good art or good literature. Four years ago, we were taping a "60 Minutes" segment about a 7-foot-6-inch basketball player who'd just graduated from college and signed a $40 million contract to play in the NBA. He'd married his college sweetheart and they had bought an expensive home and filled it with expensive furniture, a kitchen full of gadgets and some paintings selected by a decorator they hired.
The idea of paying someone else to choose the stuff with which you fill your home is inconceivable to me. A house fills up soon enough with things of your own choosing without having someone with more elaborate taste than yours do it for you.
The basketball player's house was attractive. You could see the heavy hand of an architect but there was something strange and unfriendly about it. Suddenly I realized what was missing. There wasn't a book in the house. Whatever the basketball player was doing with $40 million, he wasn't buying books.
No inanimate objects give me more pleasure from day to day than the books on the shelves behind me in my office, or the books that surround my big, green leather chair in our living room. There are books I haven't read in 20 years that I wouldn't think of throwing away or selling because I simply like having them.
Here in my office, I can look up and see favorites among the 700 books behind me. There's "A Preface to Morals," by Walter Lippmann, the great journalist and philosopher. It stands there, tattered but whole and always ready when I need inspiration. Inside the front cover, a bookplate reads, "FROM THE LIBRARY OF ROBERT BARRON RUTHMAN." Bob was my college roommate. He didn't have a library in 1946. Surely I must have paid him for the book when I took it.
The bookshelves in my office suffer from the same shortcoming as the ones in our living room. I built those shortly after we bought our house in 1951. They were all but empty then, but they are full to overflowing now. We find ourselves slipping new books flat on top of the ones standing upright because there isn't room to squeeze them in with the others.
If I was going to build the shelves again, I'd make more of them 12 inches high instead of nine inches. A 9-inch shelf will take most books, but there are too many that need 12 inches.
That basketball player is still playing but has never been worth what they pay him. When his career is over, I hope he's saved enough money to buy some books. He may have to learn how to read.
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