Sara Landreth on Susan Harlan’s Decorating a Room of One’s Own

Bookshelves are not only a great way to communicate to people that you’re smart; they’re also excellent for murdering people. You just have to knock one over, and blammo! Heart attack. I suggest something tall—like IKEA’s Billy bookcases, with the extensions—and you absolutely must not anchor them to the wall. (Interview with Margaret Schlegel, “Margaret and Helen’s Cultured and Smart City Home,” Susan Harlan).

I should begin with a confession: I can’t write a proper review of this very funny book because Susan Harlan is one of my dearest friends and favourite humans. Reader, I recused myself. When the editors of The Rambling encouraged me to write about Susan’s book anyway, I was thrilled but also apprehensive. I kept thinking about E.B. White’s warning: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” I really didn’t want to disembowel Susan’s frog. What’s more, besides being hilarious, Decorating a Room of One’s Own is about how characters make homes and homes make character. And there are very few places I’ve felt more at home than in Susan’s home.

Or rather, in the two homes of Susan’s I have known: her red shingled 1920s house in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (named Maud because she is “an old dame”), and her graduate school fourth-floor walk-up in Morningside Heights. Susan’s New York City apartment was where we bonded over our shared love of eating huge portions of bun xao and reciting entire scenes from Northern Exposure and Annie Hall. It was where our cohort often congregated after class. Susan had hung up dozens of oil paintings (many by her mother, Sharon, others from stoop sales) and covered her sofa and armchairs with worn velvet cushions and crocheted granny afghans. But the most striking feature of Susan’s place was the books. Susan owned more books than I’d seen anywhere that wasn’t a library or a bookstore, more books even than in many of our professors’ offices and apartments. She stored them in stacks on the floor, always neat and somehow never dusty, and also in birch-veneer IKEA bookcases that spanned the longest wall in her apartment. These were the very tallest Billys, with the extensions that almost reached the ceiling. Knowing Susan’s thoughtfulness, I’m almost certain they were anchored securely to the plaster. Her bookshelves were not weapons, either of murder or one-upmanship. Instead, they were a constant visual call for our time in that room to be given over to enthusiasm and generosity: have you read this? You’d love it! Borrow it!

Susan Halran in her Manhattan apartment in 2005 (photo courtesy of Landreth)

Decorating a Room of One’s Own imagines 40 literary homes in Apartment Therapy-style house tours, and many characters discuss their home libraries. C.S. Lewis’ unnamed Professor is “most at home in his library, breathing in centuries of mold from old books and reflecting on how long it will be possible to keep women out of the academy.” Books in canonical homes are funny things, especially when they are read by female characters. This is because the women don’t own the books so much as the books seem to own the women. For Little Women’s Jo March, “Books really make a home. Shakespeare, Goethe, all the big male geniuses that we women feel compelled to measure ourselves against.” Elizabeth Bennet, now Mrs. Darcy of Pemberley, confesses,

I was influenced by design elements of my former home, Longbourn, where…I really loved my father’s library. I was enamored of the mahogany bookshelves, his beautiful desk set…He made a really gorgeous room into which he could retreat from all of us. It’s funny that I should think of this, because now I’m seeing a psychoanalyst and working through some issues I have about how he talked down to my mother, his total disregard for all our welfare, and, well—a few things.

Another Austen heroine, Elinor Dashwood, clearly has off-campus access to the OED at Barton Cottage: ‘“Demesne’ derives from the Old French demeine, and ultimately from the Latin dominus, which translates as, ‘Feudalism is still a thing, so none of this shit belongs to you.’” As the Introduction notes, when writing about domestic space, “there is always the question of gender…it is fun to mock the sexism of some classics; it feels like resistance. And some books are so over-the-top that they already seem like satire.”

The same can be said for certain styles of house. In his interview about “Jay Gatsby’s Desperately Sad McMansion of Unfulfilled Dreams,” Nick Carraway sums up his friend’s home as “nouveau riche crossed with a sense of futility in an increasingly alienating and materialistic world…He was influenced by the death-bound stare of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, which you’ll remember as one of the ways you learned about symbols in eighth grade.” When I read Gatsby in eighth grade, in a small-town suburb of Seattle at the height of the 90s dot-com bubble, many baby boomers measured success by the square footage of their McMansions. Imagine if the house from The Sopranos were plopped down in Twin Peaks. The best furnishings were brand-new, from Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware: both excellent sources, according to the Green Knight from Sir Gawain, for “giant”-sized sectionals. Carmela Soprano would later sum up this decor aesthetic with perfect succinctness: “I don’t have antiques; my house is traditional.”

As a kid, I didn’t reject these subdivisions with enormous stone signs heralding “Greenwood Pointe” and “Jazz Run” on aesthetic grounds. I hadn’t yet learned how to be snobby, or at least not in the sense that one needs to be snobby about design in order to laugh at Carmela Soprano’s lack of class. Rather, I had only a vague and guilty sense that to become a woman who decorated her home was to buy into something claustrophobic, something “traditional” for which I already resented my parents and their friends but couldn’t begin to explain why. For me, McMansions weren’t an assault on “taste” or “style.” They were just another place where women had to be perfect and buy perfect things.

Susan and her dog, Millie, on Maud’s front porch (photo by Sarah Torretta Klock)

The flip side of the 1990s McMansion is the 2010s tiny house, the quintessence of our current craze for minimalism as self-help. Some of the funniest moments in Decorating a Room of One’s Own give characters anachronistic access to 21st-century “decluttering”: Nick Carraway reads Marie Kondo, Mary from The Secret Garden has a capsule wardrobe, and Maria von Trapp declares that the “cramped” submarines of the Third Reich are “less cool than tiny houses.” “Just last week,” marvels Marilla from Green Gables, “I was reading in Real Simple that I should throw away everything I own and buy other things that the magazine helpfully suggests, and I was like, But I only own a pincushion and an amethyst broach bequeathed to me by a seafaring uncle.” Marilla doesn’t have to ask herself what “sparks joy” because she doesn’t, like me, sometimes find herself Amazon-priming mass-produced tat the night before her daughter’s birthday. (And Anne would probably be perfectly happy with nothing more than a slate, a cricket harnessed on a string, and her imagination, anyway).

Some of Harlan’s book stacks with a sketch Landreth made for her (photo by Susan Harlan)

Susan’s current house, Maud, is not cluttered, but is anything but minimalistic. In 2014 Maud became the star of her own Apartment Therapy feature. Suddenly, my friend’s books were internet-famous. There in the sunny yellow guest room were the gemlike Loeb Classics (red for Roman, green for Greek) that I’d leafed through ten years earlier. Near the front door were six towers of books, some 32 volumes tall. These are echoed in Becca Stadtlander’s gorgeous cover illustration for Decorating a Room of One’s Own, which features two stacks of heavy-looking hardbacks. Susan explains the pleasure of book stacks in her Introduction: “having them all right there makes me feel as though I can just grab anything. There is an appealing immediacy to a book stack. And your books feel so connected to your home, there on the floor, at ease.”

This graspability and “pleasing immediacy” is why, I think, Susan’s style of homemaking feels so generous and so unlike the greige “great rooms” of my childhood: it invites an interaction that is akin to making. Jonathan Kramnick has recently written about the eighteenth-century aesthetics of handsomeness, where “handsome” means “at once attractive and close to one’s hands” and describes a kind of beauty that “involves creating and living in a world rather than standing back and taking enjoyment of it.” Maud is handsome, from her book stacks to her fabulous collection of doorknockers and most recently, the walk-in Wunderkammer Susan built in a tiny room just off the kitchen. It is full of shells and fossils and and grave-rubbings and curios that are meant to be handled and rearranged. As Susan writes,

“My house is a place to think and read and have long conversations with friends and hang out with my dog and write. In the end, decorating a house is a lot like writing. You are arranging things in a relationship to other things in a precise and thoughtful way in order to create something beautiful. You are choosing to surround yourself with significant things, and you are choosing to live in a realm that is significant—a realm that means something to you—and you are the one who determines what matters.”

So while I might fantasize about KonMari-ing my lidless Tupperware, old bank statements, and bazillion travel-sized toiletries, when The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up tells me to “rip out” the most important pages of my books and discard the rest, I just roll my eyes. One thing Marie Kondo gets right, I think, is that there is an appeal to holding certain objects close. But books are never clutter, especially not when they are stacked on the floor.

Sara is an associate professor English at the University of Ottawa. Her book project, A Wanton Chase, explores the aesthetics of motion from eighteenth-century hyperactivity and “the fidgets” to contemporary debates about autonomous vehicles. She is currently learning how to sketch on location and how to 3D print things, and wants to write a second book about maker culture in the long eighteenth century and today.

About a Book is a regular column of The Rambling Reads that experiments with the form of the book review by coming aslant at texts old and new. If you’d like to write a column for About a Book please get in touch with us.

Sara Landreth

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