The book tree.

family room bookshelfThe first Christmas we were together in Memphis, before we were married, before we had children, Bernard gave my mother a puppet named Book Worm that he purchased from a local bookstore. Book Worm was a green velvet – well, book, with a place to put your finger in the underside so when you opened the front flap you could wiggle the bookworm. I’d show you a picture, but I put Book Worm in a safe place and now can’t find him. You get the idea, I’m sure.

Book Worm was the perfect gift for my mother because my mother was a book hoarder. Our house was the Hotel California for books, as had been both of my grandparents’ houses before us. Crappy Nicholas Evans book, received as a get-well gift? Keeping it. Dog chewed the spine off Webster’s Dictionary? Yep, keeping it, too.

the big book unpackingWhen my mother died, almost a decade ago, I inherited all of her books, including the books she’d inherited from her in-laws when my father’s parents died. Bernard would be quick to tell you this was an endowment I did not need, as I was already solidly book-hoarding in my own right. The four books in the Twilight series? You betcha, read ’em and kept ’em. Ditto the entire Sookie Stackhouse series. No, I don’t know why. It’s a sickness, and that’s the end of it. Though guilt did prompt me to donate a couple of popular fiction books to the library. Once.

I hung onto all of my mother’s books partly through instinct, partly for sentimental reasons, and mostly because, just before she died, my mother whispered to Bernard, “Don’t let Jennifer take all the books to Goodwill; some of them are very valuable.”

For almost a decade now my mother’s books, valuable and not, have rested in boxes packed by Bernard and our friend Louie because we all agreed that having relative strangers pack my mother’s belongings, especially the books, was the most efficient and expeditious way to do things. Otherwise I’d probably still be in a corner of my mother’s house re-reading the juicy bits from Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

On January 1 of this year I decided that the books must be dealt with before year’s end; the baggage was simply too heavy. So I spent New Year’s Day moving 104 boxes from their sunroom resting place into our living room, right out in the middle of everything, thinking that if they were in the way of our everyday living then I’d be more likely to deal with them.

It took me a couple of hours to move all the boxes and then six hours to get through the very first box I opened, the one that held my mother’s 1963 date book and all of the letters between my father and her during Mama’s stint as PR manager for the Maid of Cotton tour.

decorating with booksSo the other 103 boxes sat there, on the floor of the living room, until October when my children were on fall break and I took a week off from work. Carefully, diligently, I unpacked every single box, stacking the books wherever there was an open surface. I stacked them without much of any attempt at sorting, other than to consider some basic laws of balance and physics.

From October until last week I’ve wondered, “What now?”

I should catalog them somehow, list them for inventory purposes. That’s what I should do, alphabetical by author’s last name:

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours.

Davidson, Sara. Loose Change.

Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

But if sorted them that way then “Peters, Tom. Liberation Management.” might end up next to “Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar.” Ironic, but probably not appropriate.

I could look up their library call numbers, label each book by unique identifier so they would be sorted by genus and species, as it were:

Mayle, Peter. Chasing Cezanne. followed by McEwan, Ian. Atonement.

Claiborne, Craig. The New York Times Cookbook. followed by Claiborne, Craig. The New York Times International Cookbook. Or would their call numbers be separated because of geography? Never could understand the Dewey Decimal System.

Anyway that would be conventional, but boring. And what about the old books? What would I do with my grandfather’s set of Harvard Classics, the book set he bought to reward himself after working as a night janitor to pay for law school? And what about the 1886 Anna Karenina, which, to be honest, is just beautiful to look at?

No, we are not The Library, and we never will be. Nor are we The Rare Books Room. Nor The Book Swap. Nor organized, catalog-writing, list-making inventory takers by any name.

We are book people who live among books, a wild, unsorted, illogical collection of books. Innumerable words, unfathomable stories.

our family books - a venn diagramAnd what narrative do our books tell about us? If we list them could they sum us up, start to finish? Would 100 items on the list be enough, cradle to grave, across generations? (I did try; here’s a look at the 100 books on the Balink family book list.) Would any list, no matter how long, show our full dimension, our loves and hopes and fears?

When I look at all the books, the decades on decades of accumulation, I see our whole family, like a complex Venn diagram. Books my mother and grandfather (father’s father) loved to share. Books we read as a family, my mother, father, sister and I. Books my mother and I both cherished, even if we never discussed them. And then there’s I Go Pogo, the book that lived on the table where my grandfather taught me to play gin rummy. Everyone in our family loved I Go Pogo, and we were all ruthless gin rummy players. Perhaps they go hand in glove.

But neither a list nor a diagram could capture my father’s poring over Robert F. Kennedy & His Times, Volumes I & II while my mother tucked into bed with Games Alcoholics Play. No list would know that A Wrinkle in Time jumped from 1979 to repeat itself with my own children in 2010. No schematic could predict that King Lear would foster a bud that would eventually reach for The Book Thief.

No, our collected books are more than a contained container of titles. They’re the organic roots of what we think, dream and believe. They take us to new places, help us imagine new realities, illuminate mistakes of generations past. They are more than chapter and verse. Through them we grow, we change, we evolve.

the book tree
The Balink family book tree


And that is how they’re now shelved, in an order only we would recognize.

Happy week, and cheers to all my St. Jude Memphis Marathon runner friends.

(This post was inspired, in part, by the weekly writing challenge Countdown. To learn more about writing challenges, prompts and blogging with WordPress, visit


Food | Week of December 8, 2014

The book that someone, somewhere is writing right now tells of the unsettled times we’re living in. Someone, somewhere will make sense of it, I’m sure. Until then, I feel like eating grilled cheese sandwiches and curling up under a blanket. You? Right. So how about we have some easy comfort food this week and give ourselves extra time to think.

Grown-up Grilled Cheese | Winter Fruit Saladlimes

In theory, a grown-up grilled cheese sandwich calls for good cheese (Gouda, brie, extra-sharp Vermont cheddar), good bread (perhaps even brioche), and a bit of flair like bacon or basil. But if you want to make yours with Kraft American, mayonnaise, and Pepperidge Farm Farmhouse bread, no one around here would dare think ill of you. Serve with a side of this simple lime-spiked winter fruit salad (make a double batch), and you’ve got a balanced dinner.

African Peanut Soup | Jasmine Rice | Grilled Bread

This recipe from Real Simple is easy and tasty. I prefer jasmine rice, but any variety will do. Cook a double batch of rice so you can use the leftovers later in the week. Serve with grilled or toasted bread.

Linguine with Pesto | Winter Fruit Salad (again)

basil 2014Three options: buy some exceedingly expensive fresh basil from the store and make fresh pesto; harvest pesto from your freezer (that batch you made summer before last); or buy prepared pesto from the grocery. Any of the three will taste pretty much the same as the others, so suit yourself. Toss with some linguine and serve with the remainder of the fruit salad.

Blue Cheese Burgers | Oven Fries

Many groceries now sell prepared patties with blue cheese (or cheddar) in them. If you don’t want the cheese mixed into the meat, then here’s a recipe that should work for you (super easy). Serve with oven fries like Alexa sea salt waffle fries, my family’s current favorite.

Vegetable Fried Rice | Vanilla Ice Cream

Jo's CarrotsFried rice is really easy to make, and it’s also easy to vary according to your own preferences. Here’s a basic recipe from Real Simple that’s even faster if you use leftover rice instead of cooking the rice the same night you toss it with the veggies, oil and egg. If you use a good amount of vegetable matter, then you have a complete dinner; all you need is some vanilla ice cream for dessert, and everyone will be happy.


All words and images here belong to me, Jennifer Balink, 2014. If you’d like to borrow, please ask.


  1. I thought I had a book problem! It does pain me to let em go. Often it is the memories or time in life the book represents. “I read that one right before Beth was born” is more important than the contents of the book itself. Great post.


  2. Ha! I am so glad that somebody else does things like leave stacks of books in a room for nearly a year. I finally got around to a vague fiction upstairs/nonfiction downstairs/travel in the bedroom system. But the cookbooks (which, sadly, are the only real books I buy anymore – in large part due to the lack of room) seem to creep into every category.


  3. The more either one of us opens our mouths, the more I’m convinced that we are sisters separated at birth… and you got healthier family! I have books in every space possible. Three copies of Birdsong, by Sebastian Falks, why yes, of course! The copy I bought for myself, in London– when I first fell in love with it. The copy he signed and gave to me, starting an intriguing book affair with him (a tale for another time, perhaps when we finally meet in person!) and the copy my grandfather sent me, because he didn’t know I’d read it (twice) and was sure I’d love it. His name is signed inside; how could I ever give it away? So, you see… we are truly sisters. And so I’m sharing this too: (hope the link works!) xox


  4. Looks a whole lot like my house. My favorite book – that I have seen all my life and no one, to my knowledge has ever read – is green with a black line drawing of a depressed- looking man in a long raincoat carrying an umbrella and is entitled Rain in the Doorway. No, really. I gave it to Goodwill, along with a number of other books like it this summer. I felt like a traitor, but we are at critical mass!!


Comments are closed.