The Bookshelf Report is an ongoing series where a Bushwick reader invites us into their home and shares a little bit about the books that occupy their shelves.
Dan Johnston is a long time Bushwick fan. And now here he is on the Bookshelf Report to share with you his incredible book collection — fulfilling his life long dream of being interviewed by the Bushwick Book Club Seattle (no joke, Dan actually said this. (UPDATE: Dan did not actually say this. What he said was that his lifelong dream was to be interviewed by the BBC. Whoops! My bad) ).
How do you organize your books?
I have a shelf of To-Read-Next, and a shelf of All-Time-Favorites. Other than that, they’re loosely corralled into fiction and non-fiction, and graphic novels are pretty much separate, but there’s so much overflow that all sections are usually pretty intermingled. I like how they organically mix themselves up over time, so I prefer not to organize them much beyond that, except to put books by the same author together.
Be honest. What percentage of the books on this shelf have you actually read?
Of my whole collection, not counting reference books or some lengthy multi-volume sets that I inherited, probably 40-50%. If I finish a book and didn’t love it, I often give it away. But as an inveterate bibliophile, I definitely acquire them faster than I can read them.
What’s your favorite book on the shelf?
I couldn’t possibly pick a single favorite. The 39 Steps, Bleak House, Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, and To Kill a Mockingbird are among my favorite novels. Some of my favorite non-fiction would include The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk , James Boswell’s London Journal (et seq.), The Ghosts of Cannae, Undaunted Courage, All the President’s Men, Orwell’s essays… so many great books to choose from. I’ve read three different English translations of Monkey: A Journey to the West, so that might deserve some kind of special recognition.
What’s the most interesting book on the shelf ?
The single oddest book might be Hitler Moves East: A Graphic Chronicle, 1941-43 by David Levinthal and Garry Trudeau. Trudeau, of course, is best known as the creator of Doonesbury; he and an art school classmate put together a book of photographs using cheap plastic toy soldiers to dramatically and accurately recreate the campaign of the German wehrmacht. I discovered it as a fan of Trudeau rather than a student of WWII history, but either way, it’s a pretty strange book. I also have a pocket-sized Esperanto dictionary. I own what I suspect to be an 1881 first edition of an Allan Pinkerton detective memoir. I have a 1941 copy of Canadian Occasions, a collection of speeches by John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir, a great novelist and a former Governor-General of Canada. I have a slightly outdated Rand-McNally Railroad Atlas of North America. There might be some stiff competition for “most interesting book”.
What book do you plan on reading next?
I don’t decide what book to read until I finish the previous one. Right now I’m reading Sir Walter Scott’s The Antiquary, because I finished my previous book on the day of the Scottish Independence Referendum, so it seemed timely to choose something by a great Scot writer. Unless I have an overriding reason to pick a particular book (such as an upcoming Bushwick show!), I never know what’s coming up next.
I see a sword on your shelf, what’s that all about?
Those are actually bayonets that were designed to double as swords. They were probably war booty from the Franco-Prussian war, brought to the US by a German veteran émigré and passed down in his family. A friend of my mom’s had them and didn’t want them anymore, so they got passed on to me by happenstance. One dates to 1871 and the other to 1873. They’re not especially valuable, but they’re kind of cool.
I usually try to keep them up high, because any time new friends come over to my house, they immediately unsheathe one of the swords and start waving it around like they’re trying to crack a piñata. But these things were genuinely designed to murder people who are running towards you with intent to do the same. Yet unlike bayonets made forty years later, they’re attractive to look at, both functional and elegant.
They don’t have much of anything to do with books or music, though.
Besides reading or holding up furniture, what other sorts of things are books good for?
Hm, well, the one under the tv is the only one of my books that holds up anything other than more books. I’ve been a book collector to some degree for most of my life, I guess. Collecting seems to run in my family. My grandfather is a renowned numismatist; my mother collects art (and books); my uncle collected sports cards and was also into genealogy, which I think in a way is a kind of collecting.
But at one point, I decided that I was tired of collecting books, plural, and just collected one book: Steve Martin’s Cruel Shoes. I had a couple dozen of them once, but I’ve given some away since then. After a while, I realized that although it’s obscure and difficult to find now, there must have been hundreds of thousands of copies printed… making collecting any significant percentage of them a very impractical goal. In that light, I lost interest in the project. Anyway, by that time, I needed more stuff to read.
But I’m more of a bibliophile than a true book collector, in the sense that I don’t particularly care about dollar value. For the most part, I only collect the books I like and that I hope to read. I just need to live another hundred years to find time for everything I want to read.
Thanks, Dan! You have quite the collection. I’ve never so many copies of Steve Martin’s Cruel Shoes in one place. Speaking of Steve Martin, did you know that later this season Bushwick is doing an entire event around Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up? Well, we are. Can’t wait.
As for the rest of you reading this at home, or at work, or on the train going to work, I would love to feature your bookshelf on the Bookshelf Report. Please, let me know if you are interested – send me an email.