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Every Bookshelf Tells a Story


Last night, I was cleaning off my bookshelf. It had, as most things do, become a small disaster. That’s the problem when you have what some might call too many books – and only a small space in which to display them. The others, which are vast and varied, live tucked away in various places of indignity. Some are trundled under the bed. Others are in the closet. There are even an abhorrent number of them boxed in the *gasp* attic. Book Siberia. The Isle of Misfit Pages.

Each book on that book shelf is there for a reason. Some are favorites. Some remind me of other things. Some are rare books. There are a few first editions. I realized, though, that while books tell stories, bookshelves do, as well. I came across my copy of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. I’d lent it to my mom last summer, and it was her first Gaiman novel. Her bookmark was still stuck between the pages. Somehow, I’d forgotten that she’d read it. Somehow, I’d forgotten about the small, butterfly bookmark. But there it was, a familiar bit of story.

There’s one of Anaïs Nin’s diaries and a copy of Catcher in the Rye that belonged to an old professor of mine. The Nin book bears an inscription about two people who must part, and while neither of us wrote that, the words became remarkably true. The Salinger book wasn’t one I enjoyed at all. It was that professor’s favorite. It was his from when he was a child. It is, quite literally, a piece of his past – from the childishly scrawled block letters to the full name proudly written out and display. Funny, how even our names change as time passes. Even mine. Depending on if you call me Ali or Alison, I can tell exactly when we first met. But back to the two books: they don’t mean what they used to mean to me at all. I thought about giving them away. I thought about giving them back. Ultimately, they’re still there – next to my mother’s tattered copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. They are a reminder that we are all flawed, although not in the way we often expect.

There are also at least four books full of literary criticism. These aren’t things I use every day, but it’s nice to know that Foucault is just an arm’s length from my desk. And Jean François Lyotard’s le différend somehow became my favorite theory, thanks to a professor who encouraged me to think outside the box, then pretend there was no box, and then remember the idea of the mirror box. (That sentence makes sense if you’re a lit major.)

Stacked on one side, there are photo albums from trips I’ve taken, parties I’ve been to, and holidays. There are, undoubtedly, pictures of people I no longer see or speak to, friends who have moved or changed beyond recognition, and several of those who are not living. There are three sketch pads, an old diary, a book about reading runes, and a stack of old letters. A pewter key, with a claddagh handle, sits on display – given to me by my best friend. There’s a tiny measuring tape/level from my old boss. There are, of course, a pile of Neil Gaiman novels, Deanna Raybourn’s, and an entire shelf devoted to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Each idea on that shelf is not just a thing. It’s a piece of who I am. It’s a story of its own. It’s every place I’ve ever been – and a few I intend to go.

If you want to know somebody, look at their bookshelf. Look at what they keep closest on hand. Look past the possibly haphazard arrangement of titles stuffed together too closely. Realize that it isn’t always about looking pretty or perfect. It’s about holding things close and keeping the memories right there. Every bookshelf tells a story. What does yours tell?

Categories: Random Musings
  1. March 3, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    I’ve never thought of my bookshelf in this way. Thanks for the new perspective! I actually liked Catcher in the Rye. It’s not my favorite book, but I did enjoy that. I find Salinger even more fascinating.

    • March 5, 2013 at 7:32 am

      I didn’t either, until this! Funny, how a small thing can make you think. Salinger definitely was a fascinating man. 🙂

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