Shelf life. . .and death.

Last month, Alison Morris, a blogger for Publisher’s Weekly’s “Shelftalker” and a senior editor at Scholastic Book Clubs, wrote a terrific essay about woodworkers who build bookcases that can double as coffins.

I came across Morris’s essay because friends sent it to me. Yup, friends. Plural. They insist this was a coincidence. They insist they were not in cahoots. Moreover, they both claim that they were not making a comment on either my age or the state of the paper book.

The irony, of course, is that if books may someday be extinct, then so might the bookcase.

Nevertheless, among the versions of book coffins that Morris tracked down is one from a New Zealand company called Final Furniture. It’s made of bamboo or pine, and comes with a quilted cotton mattress. It looks a little like the pod that was used to send the seemingly dead Mr. Spock onto the Genesis planet at the end of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn.” (I find it a little disturbing that I could make that connection right away, especially since I confessed in this space just a few weeks ago that I was still pretending that my wallet was a Star Trek communicator when I was in sixth grade.) The shelves come out when you go in.

Another is produced a little closer to home. It’s handcrafted by Chuck Lakin of Waterville, Maine, and is, essentially, a pair of bookcases hinged together. When you have left for that great library in the sky (and I don’t mean the magazine cart on an Airbus), the bookcases become a book coffin. It, too, is an elegant repository for books made of paper and ink and glue.

My sense is that in neither case do you want to be buried with your books.

Either donate them to libraries, shelters or schools, or give them to friends. Sell them on eBay or a yard sale. Some prose may indeed rot better than people, but a book does no one any good six feet under.

My mother would have approved of these book coffins. It isn’t simply that she loved to read. She would have appreciated the dual-purpose efficiency: Imagine, one single piece of furniture works in this life and the next. My mother was cremated after she died and there was never going to be a viewing, but I remember well how the mortician still wanted to sell my father the Mercedes-Benz of coffins. We passed and went for something a little more downscale. I think it was a cardboard moving box, but I’m honestly not sure. This was in keeping with my mother’s last wishes, which were essentially this: Sprinkle her ashes in the Gulf of Mexico and have a really big party. Spend the money on good Scotch, not a killer coffin that no one will see.

A further reason my mother would have liked the idea? She went to Colby College and bookcase coffin creator Lakin is a retired Colby College librarian.

Now, I’m a pretty ghoulish guy, but I did tell my friends that I have no interest in a book coffin — at least at the moment. Morris’ essay captures the macabre nature of the book coffin as well as the wistful reality that eventually we are all even more ephemeral than our books. Her final take? She’s not sure she’d want “such a large visual reminder of [her] own mortality” in her living room. I know what she means: I don’t need to imagine my funeral every time I take a novel down from the shelf.

Still, I applaud the notion. Isn’t it nice to know that book lovers can finally lie down in a spot they once reserved for Wharton and Shakespeare and Woolf?

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on September 5, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

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