Bookshelf real estate

I was waiting in line at the check-out at a woman’s clothing store, and the woman in front of me placed not only her dainty, silky purchase on the counter but also the four books she was carrying with her, all by mystery-thriller writer John D. MacDonald:

Spotted at the ladies' clothing store
Spotted at the ladies’ clothing store

Rather an incongruous assembly of items from a day’s shopping. I suspect she had probably purchased the books at the local independent bookstore only a couple blocks away.  Perhaps she was planning a slinky night of reading to in bed.

I had to do some research on MacDonald, having never read him.  He was a prolific author.  In addition to five works of non-fiction and five collections of his short stories, he wrote 43 novels, PLUS another 21 novels devoted to a character named Travis McGee, all between 1950 and 1987.   This means he was churning out almost two and a half books a year. If you look at his wikipedia entry, sometimes he was indeed publishing three or four books per year, especially in his early career.

Of course, MacDonald doesn’t even come close to squeezing out the amount of creative juice that truly prolific authors have managed. I poked around and found this list of the most prolific writers in literature, each of whom had authored at least hundreds of titles. (Interestingly, many of the top authors were romance writers. Does that say something about romance novels? Or about romance novelists?  Or about romance?) How do these authors find space for their own books on their shelves?

I used to shelve books at the small public library in my town, and as I recall the following authors seemed to take up the most space, both because of the number of books and the number of copies that the library felt it needed to stock: Danielle Steele; Andrew Greeley; Barbara Cartland; Tom Clancy; John Grisham; James Michener. (Michener was in a class by himself; his books were just enormous.)

At least as far as my own bookshelves are concerned, I think the author with the most physical space in my life has been L.M. Montgomery, the author of the Anne of Green Gables series and the Emily of New Moon series.  She also wrote some stand-alone novels that I absolutely had to own, too.  I think these are still lined up on the same shelf in my parents’ house where they have sat since I last read them in the early 1990s.  If I recall, I received the entire series of Anne books from a family friend, and I tore through them, and then needed to own the Emily trilogy, and when I was finished with those, I found a few more of Montgomery’s smaller works, which I also adored.  I think that the draw with her work was that it was always familiar: the main character always lived on Prince Edward Island, always had a Dickensian childhood, always had a special bosom friend with a contrasting personality but who remained a steadfast companion, and there was always that boy who grew up with her and became her true love.  And I somehow I remember their names to this day: Gilbert; Teddy.  (And the bosom friends?  Diana; Ilse.  These memories are taking up valuable real estate in my brain!)

The tendency to read everything that an author generates probably comes from the same place as our habit of turning to the same brand of product, or same clothing store, in dependence on the familiar.  Our brains are wired to to recognize and rely on patterns, and let’s face it:  authors tend to use cookie cutters for their books, filling them with slightly different ingredients but leaving the basic shape the same.  Even the titles of their books convey this as an assurance (or obvious marketing ploy), like the alphabet mysteries of Sue Grafton (A is for Alibi) or the Fifty Shades series (or so I’ve heard).  And that is pretty comforting: once you like one book, the likelihood is that you will like other books by the same author too.  It’s a lovely feeling to discover a new author, and even lovelier to find out that there’s a shelf full of his or her work available to me.

I asked friends to reveal the authors taking up the most space on their bookshelves, and its hard to come up with a theory or pattern based on the range of genres and writers, except that most of the names are awfully familiar to bibliophiles:

  • Dana Stabenow
  • Stephen King
  • Mark Twain
  • Ray Bradbury
  • Isaac Asimov
  • John Grisham
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Maeve Binchy
  • Diana Gabaldon
  • Shelby Foote
  • Rick Riordan

I’d love to hear more about reader’s real estate — please add to the comments below!

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