BOOKSHELVES by Jonathan Auxier
Book collectors are a breed apart from normal readers. Robertson Davies describes them as combining “the worst characteristics of a dope fiend with those of a miser.” For better or worse, I was born into a family of book collectors. And when I look back on the places I have lived in over the last thirty years, I do not see kitchens or hallways or bedrooms—instead I see bookshelves.
First were the living room bookcases from my infancy in New Jersey; these unvarnished giants that were the fuzzy backdrop to my earliest memories. Next came the dining room-turned-library in my Arizona home—a sort of improvised torture chamber in which I was forced to complete hours of homework. By the time we moved to Canada, my parents had taken great pains to prune their collection. I recall my father hauling black trash bags filled with books to the local used bookstore; any volumes he couldn’t sell were blithely tossed into the dumpster. I realized then and there that my parents’ shelves were no longer a safe place, and so (with the help of my mother) I began to build my own bookcases.
Any time I have moved to a new place, the storage of books has been a primary concern. When I left home for graduate school, two large bookcases were my only real furniture purchase. By this point, my collection had expanded, and I had to store books two-deep. I spent hours negotiating which volumes deserved to be in the front row and which should be banished to the back. I somehow managed to dismantle those same shelves and fit them inside my tiny Corolla when I moved to Los Angeles. Again I found myself in a new city without job or friends, and those bookshelves represented some version of home.
I married a woman whose reading habits put mine to shame. We spent most of our engagement discussing how to merge our libraries—a union I anticipated almost as much as our wedding ceremony. We registered for new bookshelves, which were quickly filled to capacity. We developed a knack for re-purposing old furniture to better hold our collection. Wardrobes, end tables, shoe racks, and cupboards were transformed into bookshelves. To this day when I enter someone’s home, I can’t help but silently study the placement and construction of their bookcases.
Let me be clear: my fixation is on the furniture itself. Furniture, I might add, that is wholly unnecessary in our current age. Book collecting is unarguably frivolous. Any quotation or reference you seek can be found online. Any story you crave can be downloaded or borrowed from a library. Moving books is prohibitively expensive. Storing them wastes precious square-footage. And yet a room without bookshelves—my bookshelves—will never feel like home.
This fixation, I think, speaks to the broader idea of what makes a “home.” Even the most sensible among us line our living spaces with totems and fetish objects. Who needs framed photographs on the mantle? Who needs tchotchkes in the china cabinet? (Frankly, who needs a china cabinet?) We keep these things near because they create continuity between the different places we have lived—objects from our different worlds come together to tell the story of who we are.
When describing the Garden of Eden, John Milton observes that it contains “Nature’s whole wealth” in a “narrow room.” That is to say, paradise does not force one to choose between geographies. In our world, however, we are very much forced to choose. To love the sunny coast is to shun the snowy mountain. To pursue a new career in the city is to abandon one’s roots in the country. Carrying objects between these places helps ease the pain of separation; the trinkets become surrogates for the people and places we have lost.
Presently, my wife and I are in the midst of another relocation—moving back to Pittsburgh in anticipation of a first child. We have bought our first house, which we will no doubt one day leave behind. The stairs creak, the windows sag, and the floors have a decided slant. We should be spending money to repair the cracked chimney and century-old wiring.
Instead, we are building bookshelves.
Jonathan is the author of Peter Nimble & His Fantastic Eyes. He lives in Pittsburgh with is lovely wife and their lovely pet umbrella. You can visit him at www.TheScop.com, where he writes about children’s literature old and new.