February’s Ladies Home Journal features an article about organizing one’s bookshelves by color. The photograph accompanying the article (the above is my rendition; the cat bookends were a gift from my mother some 45 years ago) depicts a shelf of red-bound books beneath which sits a shelf evenly divided between greens and yellows. Way up high on the top shelf, black books and white are nicely integrated with a sprinkling of beiges, tans and ochres. What does it say about book design that there was only one purple book jacket in the whole mix?
As pretty as this literary rainbow is, what serious reader would follow the stylist’s complete decimation of Dewey’s system? I suppose if I thought hard enough I’d remember that the book jacket of James McBride’s The Color of Water is black and white. But Valerie Steiker’s The Leopard Hat? The spine of that wonderful memoir is a dark terra cotta. I’d never find Val again if I didn’t know to look between Mimi Sheraton’s The Bialy Eaters (OK not really a biography but a biography of a bread and the Bialystokers who baked them) and The Ditchdigger’s Daughters by Yvonne Thornton, M.D.
With biographies organized by name, I can imagine a conversation between William Least Heat Moon and Lucette Lagnado. Blue Highways, published in the early 80’s, captures a back roads way of life that has all but died away in the face of interstates and Mickey D’s. Lagnado writes of a lost world in The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. It is an exquisite book. Lagnado’s portrait of her father — well-to-do, confident, debonair — and the family he headed in the years before, and following, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power takes you by the heart and doesn’t let you go. At all. I still hurt for her family’s losses when I recall their story.
Look Up (my sister’s biography of emigre artist Sacha Kolin) sits between Alma Mater, by P. F. Kluge and Madeline L’Engle’s The Summer of the Great Grandmother. As fascinating a companion as L’Engle would be, maybe Kolin would have had more to say to another white-spined maverick — Dr. Judah Folkman (Dr. Folkman’s War) — whose quest for a cure for cancer reads like fiction in author Robert Cooke’s hands. Kolin, like Folkman, insisted on following a singular vision despite detractors by the dozens.
The best color match of all, were I so organizationally inclined, would go to photographer Jeannette Montgomery Barron and the aforementioned Steiker. Daughters of larger-than-life women whose wardrobes were as much about clothes as personal triumph, Barron’s (My Mother’s Clothes) and Steiker’s memoirs of their mothers are loving, bittersweet and multi-layered as petticoats.
My bookshelves do have something in common with the LHJ spread: one lone purple book. Mauve recounts 19th century chemist William Perkins’ quest to synthesize quinine. The outcome of his failed experiments resulted in the creation of a purple powder; the color mauve was born and with it the key to mass-producing fabric dyes. Perkins became a very wealthy man. It took until the 1940’s to tame malaria.
Despite stylist Lili Diallo’s hue and cry to shelve books by color, I’ll leave well enough alone. Other than Blue Highways, logically bound in azure, I’d never find anything else.