Sunday, November 13, 2011


Inspired by recent postings of several other bloggers, including my friend, Ruth, author of Synch-ro-ni-zing, I have decided to pull back the curtain on the study in which I read, write, and ponder questions that will never be answered.  In the spirit of full disclosure, however, I must confess that that these photos—taken on the morning of my departure for a few months in South Carolina— suggest a level of neatness that is rarely found in my little sanctuary.  On most days, the study is cluttered with books on the floor, mail and periodicals on the desk, an myriad other items that a more organized person would have disposed of promptly and properly (e.g., abandoned coffee cups, opened maps, computer cables I don't understand, and shoes taken off the night before).

My study (header photo) is a converted bedroom that is furnished with a few of my paintings, a photo of my first yellow lab ("Baci"), three bookcases, and the desk and credenza that are holdovers from my days of practicing law.  

Other than books, furniture, and computer equipment, I do not keep many objects in my study.  On these bookshelves, however, you can see a few objects that I value for spiritual reasons.   On the middle shelf is a hand-thrown begging bowl (made by a potter friend), which is a daily reminder of how little one actually needs to live; a scallop shell (symbol of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela), which is a reminder that every day and every step is part of a pilrimage; and small carved statue of Buddha, which is a reminder that I can always choose peace.  

Beneath the shelves is a beautiful stone with a single word carved into its center: "Create."  Few words in my vocabulary hold as much power and possibility as this word.  

I have finally abandoned the the idea that I can retain all of my favorite books in my house.  Many are in storage and I am finally becoming more comfortable with the idea of donating books to the local library unless there is some reason for not doing so.  What remains in my study are those volumes which invite me to return to their pages frequently—poetry, a few favorite novels, art books, travel books, and a variety of books relating to philosophy, theology, and ancient wisdom traditions.

For the most part, my books are not organized according to author, subject matter, or any other standard.  On this shelf, however, are treasured volumes of two of my favorite authors, Henry Miller and Thomas Merton.  This is the default shelf when I find myself teetering toward despair.  Any volume on this shelf is likely to clear my vision and lift my spirits.

As you can see from this shelf, my reading habits are very eclectic.  Lots of books on religious and spiritual traditions—Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, Hinduism, and the origins of Christianity.  I see some volumes by Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, and Annie Lamott, all of whom I admire.  Others on this shelf are are Krishnamurti, Dante, Emerson, and the poet Stanley Kunitz.  Just in front of the small replica of a bicycle I once owned is my tattered but treasured copy of the great Kazantzakis novel, Zorba the Greek.

This shelf has a bit of almost everything—more Henry Miller, an anthology of the poetry of Jorge Luis Borges, several volumes on yoga, a two-volume anthology of American poetry, the collected works of Yeats, more works by Wendell Berry, a selection Nietzsche's works, and several books on the art of writing.  I also see my copy of Jon Kabat-Zinn's fine book, Full Catastrophe Living.  I'm especially fond of this title because it reminds me of one of the main reasons I have always loved books: They prepare us for the full measure of life, including all of the catastrophes that will be encountered by each of us.

I'm hopelessly addicted to travel books and travel essays, some of which are found on the top shelf here.  I also see a favorite book by Ken Wilber, a compassionate philosopher whom I greatly admire;  several works by Rilke, including Letters to a Young Poet, a small volume which I read at least once every year; and one of my books by Karen Armstrong, a contemporary theologian who has written a number of fine books, including a biography of Buddha.

Looking closer at the bookshelves in the second photo of this post, one can see that I have a rather insatiable interest in various wisdom traditions.  Underpinning this interest is a lifelong desire to understand the common threads that are found in all of these traditions.

On this shelf is a novel, The Sea, by John Banville, a fine Irish novelist whom I have only discovered in the past few years.  There is also a copy of Crossing to Safety, a novel by the late Wallace Stegner, whose work I also greatly admire. Between these novels are several spiritual books,  including the Tao Te Ching and more Krishnamurti.  I also see a couple of French books—additional evidence of my being an unabashed Francophile.

For what I consider to be enlightened discussions of Christianity, I usually turn to iconoclasts such as some of those represented on this shelf—Paul Tillich, Meister Eckhart, and John Shelby Spong.  I also greatly admire the work of Eckhart Tolle, who, like Aldus Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy, has done much to elucidate the core principles that underpin all of the great religions and spiritual traditions.  I'm especially fond of Eckhart Tolle's book, A New Earth.

Some of my Alan Watts books are found on this shelf.  The writings of Watts were instrumental in introducing me to Zen several decades ago.  Also found on this shelf are several different translations of the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, as well as a volume of the Upanishads and some additional works by Krishnamurti.

Well, there you have it—a few glimpses into my sanctuary, one of the places where I can usually find refuge from the outside world and passage into the interior realm. For those who might have the inclination, I would recommend this little exercise, not only because it is always interesting to see the contents of other people's bookshelves, but also because one can discover so much about oneself my simply looking at the favorite books of one's life.  A bookshelf is a better mirror of oneself that a piece of glass.


  1. What an intimate and interesting insight you've revealed, my friend. I love looking at the bookshelves and workspaces of others. I can't say I'm particularly surprised by either the breadth or depth of your reading, though I am extremely appalled at how neat and orderly your workroom/library looks compared to mine—even if you did photograph it on a "good day." I'm also struck by the number of titles we have in common, which is more than I would have thought—especially when it comes to poets. I also note that you seem to have more books in trade paperback bindings than hardcover, while I tend to accumulate the other way around. (As an aside, given a choice, I'd almost always prefer the used copy to the brand new, and if it has a few notations in the margins, so much the better!) Unlike you, I have not quite reached the point of being able to part with the bulk of my books, so they remain scattered on bookshelves, in closets, in boxes in the attic, and in not a few handy stacks on various horizontal surfaces…though I am gradually coming to the notion of giving away most of what I consider "peripheral" books and keeping only the "core" volumes I simply wouldn't want to be without.

    I enjoyed this annotated post very much and appreciate your sharing. BTW, I have Wallace Stegner's "Crossing to Safety," but have never read anything by John Banville; I'm going to make a point of reading "The Sea."

  2. Hi GRIZZ, and thanks for the lovely comments. Glad you enjoyed this post. I decided to give this a shot because I read similar postings by others and enjoyed each and every one of them.

    Yes, it was a "good day," relatively speaking, when I made these photos. My wife would have been appalled if I had published photos of a typical day in my study.

    I, too, love old hardback copies of books. At one time many years ago, I started buying very old books from used bookstores and antiquarian shops, and I always thought that the notations and underlinings of the previous owners added to the the history and richness of the volumes.

    Parting with books has always been extremely difficult for me, but I am now reconciled to the fact that certain volumes are placed in better service when available to others, rather than stored in a box somewhere. The terms you use are a good guide for me; donate the "peripheral" and keep the "core."

    Give Banville a shot. He's quite respected across the pond, and I think he's won a number of significant awards for his fiction. I've read "The Sea" and "The Book of Evidence."

  3. This was a great post! Kind of like giving us a peek into your private life a bit. Great choices of literature, and a little bit of art, as well. Looking forward to seeing your record collection in a future post - maybe a little Coltrane or Bill Evans? Great to be here again. EFH

  4. Thanks, EXPAT! Great to hear from you again. I like your idea about a post on music preferences, but I'm not quite sure I would know where to begin or end. On second thought, I think I would be comfortable both beginning and ending with one of the artists you mention—the inimitable Bill Evans!

  5. This is terrific, George!

    I would love to see your sanctuary sanctified by your clutter. But I will “settle” for this view of your tidy space, which is very lovely. The natural light is great.

    Your earthy treasures on the shelves near the books that bring you sustenance are inspiring, and I appreciate their significance. I would like to get my hands on that shelf of Miller and Merton. I have just ordered two Annie Dillard books. Glad to see Wilber, and Berry.

    I would like access to your wisdom books, and the “enlightened” Christian ones (I love that). I completely relate to your statement that Underpinning this interest is a lifelong desire to understand the common threads that are found in all of these traditions.

    Thank you for this look at your haven of your interior work. I can’t say there are surprises, but I do feel I know you a little better.

  6. Thanks for your lovely comments, RUTH. How nice it is to think that the clutter actually sanctifies my little refuge. I can assure you, however, that you would probably change your mind if you were to see the real deal on a bad day. No, I didn't really expect that you or anyone else would find many surprises on my bookshelves. These books are often the sources of the ideas that permeate my postings.

  7. Ok..a nosey one what was between May Sarton and The Art of Aging?? Sometimes the spaces in between can be the most interesting.
    Loved all the Merton. Heck I just love browsing bookshelves. Must have been all the years working in libraries and bookstores.

    I completely understand the difficulty of separating from books, so very difficult. I've finally begun, because there really aren't anymore walls left for new bookcases! I look around the incredibly disheveled office space that I'm trying reconfigure and paint by Thanksgiving..and sigh! Your's looks, well, rather like your blog, peaceful and tranquil. I do think you need a comfy chair though...a curl up and read in chair! (Not THE comfy chair ala Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition!)

    Thanks for sharing though, iIt gives me hope. It'll never be that neat, but still, hope springs eternal!

  8. Thanks for the interesting and generous comments, KARIN. Sorry, but I have no idea what was between Sarton and "The Art of Aging." Perhaps it was just emptiness reminding me of something as important as the contents of books. And believe me, Karin, this appearance of a neat and orderly study is nothing more than a Potemkin village. My study. like much of my life, is far more cluttered on most days. As for the chair, it's rather odd but that old office chair, a remnant from my days of practicing law, is quite comfortable when leaned back at a certain angle, thereby allowing me to prop up my feet on the desk and begin reading. Perhaps it comes from all of those years of sitting behind the desk reading briefs.

  9. I really enjoyed this peek into your sanctuary, a place where you have taken us with your words and artwork and photography, but so nice now to tour with you as hospitable guide, so informative without being overbearing.

    I must admit I was dismayed and almost irked by the neatness and lack of clutter seen in the header photo, such a contrast to my ramshackle hovel, where I work and play and spend so much of my days and some nights. I appreciated your disclaimer on this point.

    Eclectic is a beautiful word and one I know you love. But no matter how eclectic your interests and passions may seem on the surface, there is a strong unifying thread that runs through all of them and ties together the whole beautiful quilt, a thread that, for want of a better word, we can all happily refer to by the name of "George".

  10. Thanks for your comments, LORENZO, and have no fear; my study appears uncluttered only two or three days a year at most. For most of the year, your word, "hovel," is a more appropriate description of my refuge.

    Yes, I guess I'm not as eclectic as I think I am. Bookshelves are mirrors of the owner's soul and they never lie.

  11. Thanks so much for allowing us this voyeuristic peek into your study, George! It's quietly thrilling to expose ourselves like this, isn't it? I must admit, as soon as I read Ruth's post about her own bookshelves, I wanted to do the same. And will do when I get round to it.

    First of all, what a lot of books and authors we have in common! Jon Kabat-Zinn, Huxley, Yeats, Nietzsche, Miller, Borges, Dillard, Emerson, Tao Te Ching, Alan Watts, Karen Armstrong, Krishnamurti... the list goes on and on. Though I have yet to read Banville and Stegner; and Tolle's 'The Power of Now' - which someone else has recently recommended - is a soon-must-read for me.

    Next - I love your bookshelf 'objects': the begging bowl (I remember you talking about this before), your scallop shell (well, you know how much this one means to me), the buddha (I also have two on my shelves) and that stone with its totemic single word.

    Finally, and on a less serious note: have you been reading that book 'Declutter Your Life'? The lack of mess is just ever so slightly worrying, though I do take on board your reasons ;)

  12. George, What a fun peek into your inner and outer world. I gave away so many books in my moves between Minnesota and Santa Fe (and back again) that I have gotten used to a very pared down library, but I see we still have many of the same titles, and, like you, they do make fine jumping off points for posts.

    I like your comment about finding common threads. It's a good way to approach life and the discoveries I find always move me onward to the next good idea. Your selection of books provides a good example of the possibilities.

    It's a pleasure to read a post from you again. You always lend a breath of fresh air.

  13. Thanks, ROBERT. I'm looking forward to having a peek at your workspaces and bookshelves when you get around to it. To be candid, I was a bit reluctant to do this, even though I really enjoyed similar postings by Ruth and a few other bloggers. Perhaps I feared that pulling back the curtain on my little refuge would upset the rhythms of my universe. As I thought about it, however, I realized that I am among friends and I suspect that most of us would enjoy seeing each others workspaces and bookshelves. Perhaps there is a bit a voyeurism here, but there is a natural inclination to get to know one's friends better, and there is always the intriguing possibility that one will stumble upon something new and interesting—a new book, a new author, whatever.

    I'm not surprised that we have a shared interest in certain books and authors. Indeed, some of my books have been recommended by you. I have a couple of Richard Long books that do not appear in the photos, and, on the bottom shelf of the seventh photo down, you will find a couple of books by Robert MacFarlane, who I discovered through your postings.

    I'm delighted that you are going to read "The Power of Now," and I would also recommend another Tolle book, "A New Earth." Among contemporary thinkers and writers, Tolle has an almost unparalleled ability to break through words, symbols, rituals, creeds, and traditions, in order to remind of us the fundamental truths that underpin our existence.

    As for the lack of clutter, that comes from taking these photos on the morning in which I departed for South Carolina and the need to leave the house in a condition that would permit it to be shown to prospective buyers. Picture four or five empty Starbucks cups, discarded boots and socks on the floor, a few stacks of books that have long since collapsed in the corners—and there you have it, the real me.

  14. Thanks, TERESA, for your lovely comments. I suspect that you and I, like most of the others with whom we communicate in the blogosphere, could get along without many things, so long as we have our books. Buried in the myriad dog-eared pages are signposts that have brought us this far, and which will undoubtedly take us to our future destinations, whatever they may be.

  15. There you are, George - I was happy to see your post and know that you're well. I always feel most comfortable in a space that contains books. Even though I mainly read on the Kindle, my treasured books remain on my shelves, bringing back memories from the past and reminding me of paths I may still want to pursue. I cannot imagine a world without story and poetry. My shelves contain some of the same volumes as yours. Favorite books, like cherished friends, reveal new truths each time I spend time with them. Have a Happy Thanksgiving, George!

  16. Thanks, BARB, for your lovely comments. Unfortunately, I grew up in a house in which there were very few books. It's now such a blessing to be surrounded by books. As you say, good books can offer the most enduring of friendships. And a Happy Thanksgiving to you!

  17. Hi George,

    I must have missed this post ... just stumbled upon it now. I felt SO comfortable browsing through your bookshelves, because they are very much like my library of books. I, too, have Tillich, Emerson, Merton, Sarton, Yeats, etc. - Kunitz, Sarton, Tolle, Armstrong, Thomas Moore, the Dalai Lama, Tich Nhat Hanh, The Tao te Ching. Was interested to see you read Wilber - I have most of his books and I think I have every book Stegner ever wrote. And, you have a book by Mark Epstein!

    It seems like such an intimate thing to be willing to open up and expose one's sanctuary. I'm not sure I would ever see it through to completion, because I so love so many of my books that while photographing them I would surely be seduced into several repeat intimacies ... never to be heard from again.

    My first reaction on seeing your post was to surprise - as I have always thought of you as so private. Thank you for the tour - it was truly a delight to tiptoe through your tomes.

  18. Thanks, Bonnie. Glad you enjoyed this post. Yes, I am a very private person, and, frankly, I'm a little surprised myself that I pulled back the curtain on my little sanctuary and bookcases. I was reluctant to do so, but finally decided to reciprocate after reading similar postings by Ruth ("Sync-ro-niz-ing") and several other bloggers. For better or worse, I assured myself that I am among friends.

  19. Fascinating! A mirror indeed.

    I seem to remember it's considered good luck to keep one's I Ching wrapped in a cloth and above shoulder height. Exactly why, I don't know.

    Old superstitions often have practical origins: perhaps it was simply so that it didn't get used as a coaster. :)

  20. HI, DOMINIC! Great to hear from you. I didn't know that about the I Ching. Perhaps I will find some cloth and place it on a higher shelf. And, as the myriad circles on my desk attest, I seldom use coasters for anything. Hope all is well with you and your family.

  21. I think I could spend years in that room living off nothing but toast, tea and words. I see many books there I've read and loved and many more that I want to read.

    I've never been a collector of books myself, though. Well, I lie. I worked at a bookstore for a few years in my early 20s and accumulated soooo many books, then embarked on years of nomadic living wherein the books became a burden in need of storage. I gave them all away to the library of a communal farm I lived on for a while where they could be enjoyed by the many people who came and went. After that, I swore I would never collect books again.

    Almost all the books I own are reference books. I have become the library's best customer and would be bankrupt without the inter-library loan system. When I do buy or am given a book, after I read it I mail it off, with a letter, to a friend who I think would like it.

  22. How wonderful to get an official tour of your books thus saving me from rubbernecking and feeling like a snoop. Your collection is a beautiful composite that reflects all the facets of you. I love the mementos that add yet another dimension to this self-portrait. I think your paintings are a dream, but you already know that.

    I have a few suggestions for rearranging your office. Let me know if you are interested.

  23. Hi, Dutchbaby, and thanks for your lovely comments. I'm especially glad that you like the paintings. Thanks for your offer of suggestions for the rearrangement of my office, but I must respectfully decline. I'm quite content with the current arrangement. Have a great weekend!

  24. Thanks for your generous comments, FIREWEED. As you will note from my comments to others, I have always struggled with the issue of what to do with books. While they can become physically burdensome, I just like being in their presence. To be quite honest, I tend to think of my books as my friends. By the same token, I think it eventually becomes a bit foolish to hoard volumes that will probably never be read again and which could be of value to others. Accordingly, my current policy is to keep the core, i.e., the treasured volumes to which I return from time to time, and to donate everything else to the local libraries. Have a good weekend!

  25. You are amongst my favourite bloggers, and here, in this rare post, is the reason why.

    I am sorry that you feel the need for a 'default' shelf when you are teetering on the brink of despair and that the mention of despair should be a part of a blog post. But I am glad that this default shelf exists. We all need the solace of wiser souls than we are for those dark moments, be that solace to be found in music, literature, spiritual writings or poetry.

    My very best wishes, dear George.

    I think I must do this too, for a whole host of reasons, most of them to do with finding out who I am.

  26. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, FRIKO, and please don't make too much of my comment about the default shelf that I turn to when on the brink of despair. By "despair," I am simply referring to those moments in which I am challenged to go deeper, those moments in which the rather trite answers to life's dilemmas offer little or no solace. Without such challenges, it would be impossible for any of us to grow, at least in my opinion.

    I wholeheartedly encourage you to consider a similar posting. Quite apart from the joy that your readers will experience in perusing your own bookshelves, I think it's a great way for each of us to rediscover who we are. As I think I stated in earlier comments, I see more of my true self in the books that I read than in the mirror.

  27. You are right, of course. Books give a true picture of who we are. When I look around me at my shelves, I come to the conclusion that I am a great mix of many different facets.

    You are also right when you say that obligatory time spent together is just a waste of everybody's time. We have been conditioned to feel that we 'must' get on with blood relations when they are often our least favourite people.

    These episodes of sadness pass reasonably painlessly and quickly nowadays, although there is always a core of regret which remains. I expect everybody has those feelings to some extent.

    Happy Thanksgiving, George.

  28. Thanks for your comments, FRIKO, and thanks for your Thanksgiving wishes. I suspect that there are many of us who feel a certain amount of guilt or regret on family matters, not necessarily because we could have done better, but simply because reality has failed to coincide with the social ideals that that were part of our conditioning.

  29. thanks for sharing your library.. your sanctuary and your love of books.. and your books too.. I also have a library-- and it holds more than just my many books.. but a lot of my different collections including fossils and rocks and bird cages... I love it.

  30. Thanks, DONNA. You live in one of the most beautiful environments I have ever seen. In your life, there seems to be no place at which art ends and mere objects begin.

  31. Intriguing, George! I have thought of doing this, but I never get it cleaned up like you did! (...abandoned coffee cups, opened maps, computer cables I don't understand, and shoes taken off the night before... this is the photo I NEED to see :) I have several little spots, not one designated spot (YET) as I still have two older "children" that trek home in the summer and a few weekends. We might even down-size soon and "poof" there goes my spare room ;)

    I love your idea of "thin" places. I feel that sometimes when taking photography, when I'm by myself, walking along silently ... I often (am guilty of) listen to The Broadway channel, but my husband likes classical and he seems to unwind this way. I'm not sure if he has enough of a "poetic" mind to understand "thin places". My guess is he will say he experiences that in church... Not so much me ... maybe a graveyard... I certainly did in Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah when I was walking that without another living soul in sight!

    I'll try to remember and get back with you regarding John's response. :)

    And thanks for sharing your personal space. I will be doing this at some point in the future.

  32. Thanks for your generous comments, MARGARET. As I have noted elsewhere, a thin place for one person might be a thick place for another, and vice versa. The key is to find situations that open your heart when you least expect it. And as for a post on your books, don't feel the need to clean up first. Most people who have done this little exercise have just photographed some of their favorite bookshelves.