About women who read, for women who read.

One Night stand

By Hilary Cosell

You should see my bedside table, such a clutter of objects, cigarettes, cosmetics, aspirins, glasses of water, The Golden Bough, a detective story, any object that happens to take my fancy.
— Helena Napier to Mildred Lathbury in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women.

I’ve always loved this description from Pym’s novel, because Mrs. Napier is describing a perfect nightstand, and mine, too, minus my gun.

Yes, my gun. Not one that shoots bullets, but a deep, succulent pink weapon that shoots pepper spray. A woman should be prepared for anything, especially at night. So it’s one of the many essentials crammed into, and onto, the small and delicate nightstand by my bed that I inherited from my mother years ago. Burnished wood, one drawer, a small storage space under the drawer, brass fittings, delicately carved, curved legs, and a marble top. It’s lovely.

Or it would be if you could see it. A small lamp, Diet coke cans, a bottle of water, hand and skin creams, my current book, Advil, pairs of glasses, and a few pieces of recently worn jewelry are strewn across the tabletop, as if cast there by Miss Havisham’s decorator. The drawer’s pulled out just a little to stash my phone and the remote control, in case insomnia strikes, and I need Rachel Maddow in the middle of the night. The rest of the drawer is filled with cards and notes from my kids, mismatched buttons, a box of earrings, and dust.

Then there’s the small space under the drawer, where some comfort books, what GAL calls Sanity Shelf books, sleep peacefully until I need them. Franny and Zooey. Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. Jane and Michael Stern’s Square Meals, social history disguised as a cookbook. To Kill a Mockingbird. Truman Capote’s haunting A Christmas Memory. Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. The Accidental TouristThe Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel, and Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer.

Given my mother’s aesthetics, and the fact that all she usually kept on this bedside table was one book, her glasses and a lamp, the floor in front of the nightstand is merely an extension of it, a space to pile up books. Since I’m usually reading more than one new book at a time, the top of the pile are current books. (Sometimes I find current books in my bed, too, which can marginally be considered as a nightstand as well.) The Sympathizer and The Underground Railroad top the heap. And because all born readers are born re-readers, too, the stack reflects my ever-changing needs and moods for narratives, from an all time favorite, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter, to Louise Penny, P.D. James, and Stewart O’Nan. On the nightstand itself, right now, is A Tale of Love and Darkness, by Amos Oz.

I think Helena Napier would appreciate my nightstand’s collection of whatever takes my fancy, as I like hers.

Perhaps not the pink gun, you think? Well, Helena was a career anthropologist, created by Pym in 1952, a woman way ahead of her time. She probably carried one.


Hilary Cosell is a television producer, author, and writer. 

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