Bedside Table: Lily Cowper

The books we take to bed. Or, an ode to libraries, and a sad stack for a sad sack.

Lily Cowper's stack of books.

These books are not my all-time favorites; they are sitting here because I have ordered them off Amazon and now I must own them forever. I don’t know why I bought them, because I usually only buy books if I like the cover enough, or if I desperately feel an urge to highlight the lines. My favorite books are all back on the library shelves.

Libraries play a special role in my life. Few happy memories circle back into my head from kidhood, but often, I think of my mother bringing me to the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg, VA when I was in preschool. I got curated goodie bags with an audio tape and various children’s books of the same theme. It was supposed to be fun because it was a mystery what theme you got. I didn’t really care about the theme, but rather judged a good bag by the amount of Berenstain Bears books inside it.

No matter how new a library is, when you step inside there is always something that makes it feel quite old and damp, in a good way. Maybe because the concept of a library is so old fashioned. Maybe that there are always old people using the computers. I remember vividly that elderly people used to bring a magnifying glass to hold up to the screen when they were doing online research. (By the way, if you still do this, do you know you can zoom in the screen?)

It is also a place for people to stay warm. Fredericksburg has a surprisingly large homeless population and it was well known that homeless people would hang out at the library and read books all day long. When it was closed, you knew it because they were all hanging out on the library steps. As you walked up to the doors, they would laugh and yell at you, “It’s closed!”

Amazon is great but it is better to borrow books. There is something about turning to the back page and seeing the old slip of all the people who checked out the book years before you, and the stamps that are the markings of librarians who checked it out for them. It is good to go to the library and know what you’re looking for, but if you don’t, there is always someone there to help you. Books are hard because it is not always some content you’re looking for, but rather the way a writer will speak to you. We are always trying to find writers who we can get along with, and god knows you can’t get along with everyone.

Onto my sad stack.

I have just started “Naked Lunch” by William S. Burroughs and I fear I will never end it. I am five pages in and can tell it is genius, but the only way I could ever get through it is by reading it out loud to myself. If I went through with it, it would make me say things I never thought I could say.

I loved “Giovanni’s Room” (James Baldwin) and I think it has made itself a spot on the tiny list of books I’ll never forget. Baldwin is one of the few writers that I feel has actually been honest with me.

The problem with “Giovanni’s Room” is that the internet only recommends books about more gay relationships, which really have nothing else in common with Baldwin’s masterpiece. I’m not really looking to read about homosexuality, I’m looking for another story about passion and disgust, involves Europeans, and is written in the way that Baldwin spills all his secrets to us. Unfortunately this search is too long for Google. One day I hope to find another book like this.

It did prompt me to read two other books of his, ”‘Another Country” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.” I’m not sure why it is “Giovanni’s Room” that’s known as being pornographic, as it is barely erotic compared to these next two I would read. I loved them all in their banned book glory but “Giovanni’s Room” is still my favorite.

The next is an author that all of my favorite authors can’t stop squealing about. How fitting that I moved directly from Baldwin onto Balzac, as though I am just reading my way through the library shelves.

I am not worried about reading Balzac the wrong way. When I read the classics, I try not to read margins or Cliffs Notes about them, because I know they will just ruin it. It’s like trying to explain a joke to someone. The recipient of the explanation is now bored and politely producing a fake laugh (worse than no laughter at all, which you are already trying to heal from), and the joke giver is now wishing the interaction never began. Imagine years’ worth of literary experts trying to explain your joke to an auditorium of students. Wouldn’t you just wish you never said it in the first place? Also, if Balzac is truly so great, his readers shouldn’t need Cliffs Notes.

It was the same with Dante, who I found nauseatingly enjoyable, even being someone who hates Shakespeare so much. My version of “The Inferno” came complete with all the musings of some linguistics expert, offering explanations of Dante’s references after each Canto, as well as before each, describing what is about to happen. Spoiler alert! Helpful for some, no judgement there, but I chose to read it bare, as they had to when it was first published. Reading the margins could have made the book suck, but without the notes, I got through it really quickly, by mumbling the words aloud to myself. I finished before the angst of trying to comprehend it would have otherwise set in, and now I’ll remember it fondly.

Sometimes, in spite of our outdated high school English curriculum, I would make loud, uneducated judgements about Shakespeare (if Shakespeare was allowed to make his own rules about grammar and vocabulary, why couldn’t we?), and spread gossip around the classroom about F. Scott Fitzgerald (I once read that Fitzgerald stole ‘The Great Gatsby” from his wife Zelda, who was conveniently labelled certifiably insane, later in life). As most would agree, classics are overanalyzed to the point of no return, which is why I nearly always stick to the New and Noteworthy section. This choice will be a nice change.

The last is a zine, called ‘Put A Egg On It!’ based out of Brooklyn, NY. It is a biannual zine about food, which specifically asks for pieces about food from non-food writers. I think their goal is to keep the food scene humble and realistic, as most true food-lovers are. A lot of the pieces are about street food or ethnic foods, or dinner party conversations, or feelings, places, and relationships associated with food. It has some of the best writing I have ever read, as well as the best photography and illustrations. The New Yorker has good writing, but if you ever want to see some of the great, unique pieces they may have rejected — look no further.

Want to share what you’re reading? Send a snap of your bedside table with the date that you took the photo and a few sentences about what’s on it, what you’re reading, and why you like or don’t like it. While we hope you will show us your bed table as is, please note this is a family publication so before snapping your photo, we encourage you to remove anything . . . erotic . . . other than, perhaps, those lines found in the books you may be reading. Email photo and descriptions to


Lily Cowper is an intern at The MV Times. She has resided in Oak Bluffs since moving here from Fredericksburg, Virginia.