Quest: The Ideal Bookshelf

Posted by laura on Aug 03 2008 | Holiday, Travel, Uncategorized

We keep reorganizing our art/guest room. I’m crazy about this room, but it’s looking more and more likely that it’s a slightly above average room without any magical qualities whatsoever. So, out of my astronomically high list of requirements for the space, it will probably accommodate many of them gracefully, a few more with cajoling, and the last ones – well that room’s going to look me square in the eye and say, “Honey, those are not requirements. They’re pipe dreams.”  

One non-negotiable requirement is a good bookshelf, and because this is our guest room, one thought led to another until it hit me that it would be fun to try to come up with the Ideal Guest Room Bookshelf. What would be the perfect set of books to suit any guest?

It’s a challenge, since really it ought to have something to offer visitors of all ages and interests (ha! looks like we’re back to the ‘lack of magical qualities’ conundrum).

I’m figuring the length of stay to be between one night and one month – anything over that and you’re pretty much a resident, and you need a library card.


When I was back in Boston, I really started to think more about this, since I was sleeping in the study at my parents’ house, where there are books floor to ceiling and layered three rows deep all around the room. Cheaters. But what if they had to edit the offerings down to just a few shelves? What would make the cut?

Here’s my first stab at it - 

- Local interest: guides, maps, historical stuff about where we live

- Humor: P.G. Wodehouse, Dave Barry, Nora Eprhon, Gerald Durell, Bill Bryson

- Action/Mystery: Lee Child. Ok, and Michael Chrichton, John Grisham, Agatha Christie – you have to have a good bunch of these

- Science: I love Oliver Sacks and James Burke

- Classics: Austen. Do we seriously need anyone else?

- Fiction: there’s always some great new fiction out and about, so this one has to shift around. There must be some fresh material in there (like Water for Elephants this year). But then I’ll always want some favorites like Sue Monk Kidd, Kaye Gibbons, Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Lamott, Kurt Vonnegut, Harper Lee…

- Short Stories: Bailey White…(Oliver Sacks works well here too)

- Poetry: does anyone read poetry on vacation? Ok just kidding, I know some people do, and I have something for both of you. I have Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, Annie Dillard, Paul Marion…

- History and Non Fiction: I like nonfiction grippers, like Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm

- Children’s: This one is hard – we have a zillion kids books and I love many of them. I guess I’d have a rotating assortment ranging from Curious George up to The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, or maybe a bit older. And we’d definitely have some local flavor, like Lissa Rovetch and Martha Weston – authors and illustrators and family. 

Alright I’ll admit it – I thought this post was going to be FUN. I thought it was actually going to be easy. But once I started writing actual authors and titles down, I became incredibly stressed out at the thought of leaving out a favorite writer. There are so many great books out there. How can I not mention Toni Morrison or George Orwell? How can I possibly not name all the books that have meant so much to me? But that’s not what this is supposed to be about.

As my neighbor Michael says – your guest bookshelf says more about you than about your guests, and rightly so. He’s even opposed to anthologies, because he thinks they’re a cop-out. Pick what you think people will like, even though it really represents what YOU like, he says.

My feeling is that the perfect shelf should have some reliables (short enough to read during a visit and dependably funny or exciting or illuminating) and a few new windows. 

When Tom’s parents were here last – they left with having read a Dick Francis and Sandra Dallas’ The Persian Pickle Club. It was fun trying to find a match for them with authors and stories that were new to them. This summer, back in Boston, I re-read a couple of Lee Childs, Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, John Grisham’s A Painted House, Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants, and Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle. It was awesome.

When I was staying at my brother and sister-in-law’s house, it hit me that there’s a hidden danger in having an excellent bookshelf… your guests might very well stay up too late reading your wonderful books and not hear their children when they wake up in the morning. That’s purely hypothetical, of course, but I could surely imagine that it could happen.

But now, please enter our audience participation part of the program here:

What’s on Your Ideal Guest Bookshelf?

Let me know what you think makes a great read for a visitor. All comments will be automatically entered into our Grand Prize drawing.


No purchase necessary. Simply submit your top guest bookshelf ideas to Something Like This, Inc. to be entered into our Grand Prize drawing. Multiple entries per person. Employees of Something Like This Inc., its contest sponsor, advertising and promotional agencies and their respective affiliates and associates and such employees’ immediate family members and persons with whom such employees are domiciled are absolutely included in this contest. Heck, we’re pretty sure they’ll be the only entries.

GRAND PRIZE for entry in the Guest Bookshelf Idea survey is free accommodation in scenic Mill Valley, CA for 2 (or more), for as many nights as desired by the winning party. The prize is not redeemable in cash and must be accepted as awarded. Decisions of the contest judges are final – no substitutions will be available. Grand Prize winner must be related to, or friends with, the prize sponsors.  Excellent reading material for the duration of the winner(s)’ visit is guaranteed.




5 comments for now

5 Responses to “Quest: The Ideal Bookshelf”

  1. Joe

    I would recommend some John McPhee. There are a number of collection books, so you can be sure you’ll finish some before you leave and they are uniformly fascinating and well written.

    The problem with a novel is as you say, either you stay up too late reading it and don’t hear your kids in the morning or you don’t get to finish it. With a McPhee collection you can read each article in one or two reasonable nights.

    I recommend “Irons in the Fire” because it has two of his most memorable articles, in my opinion. One is about forensic geology and includes an anecdote about a French geologist who correctly identified three samples of dirt based on a few grains, including Mt. St. Helens ash and dirt scraped from a steel girder from the Marine barracks that was bombed in Lebanon. The other is about scrap tires, and the problems and innovations around their disposal.

    04 Aug 2008 at 9:08 am

  2. laura

    Thanks, Joe! I KNEW you’d have a suggestion for me. I’ll definitely put Irons of Fire on my shelf.

    And let me add, if Kristen were to look after our kids for a while one morning when I didn’t hear them get up, I would be really very grateful to her. Just for the record.

    04 Aug 2008 at 9:59 am

  3. Kristen

    Just for the record, it would be (or was, hypothetically speaking, of course) my sincere pleasure to have some play time with Hot Wheels and his sister. Anytime, anywhere and hopefully soon…

    05 Aug 2008 at 5:43 pm

  4. alison

    So I have been pondering this question for the last couple of days, and my realization was, despite the fact that i agree with everything stated, that my best guest reading examples were actually big, long, complicated books that i probably would have never picked up if i hadn’t been on holiday and pursuing someone else’s collection of books. For example, i borrowed Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, the Last Temptation of Christ, some Moliere, etc. And what happened was that i became so engrossed in the book that i left with the book and a promise to mail it back when i finished reading it. So i say don’t be afraid to add one or two epic novels that takes years to read, your guest might surprise you! And these are books that you can’t read for very long without taking a break a contemplating what you have read. Oh, and i’ll be coming one of these days whether i win or not!!! love, Alison

    06 Aug 2008 at 8:57 am

  5. laura

    Ooh Alison… interesting point! I like your adventurous approach to holiday reading.
    You’ll definitely have to come out to let us know about our choices, as well as to give us some feedback on the room design! We’re still shifting things around a lot, but getting closer to an arrangement that feels good. We sure would love your input…

    07 Aug 2008 at 12:16 pm

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