The Zen of the Full Bookshelf


For as long as I can remember, there were books.

Even when I was young, there was always a bookshelf in my room. As a boy, the books were big in dimension and heavy with colour: every page was an explosion of primaries and secondaries, huge fonts scrawling across cardboard and paper and soft felt. My parents would buy me dozens of books and read them with me or endure my first faltering, stuttered forays into reading them myself. My mom’s books would be stuffed under the coffee table in the living room, my eldest sister’s ferreted away when she moved out. My grandparents had their own immense bookshelves, filled with Pattersons and Grishams for my father’s father, Binchys and old poetry and probably still more Grishams for my mother’s mother. There was a library just down the street, and most summers they had some sort of program to trick children into reading by dressing it up in the garb of the Olympics, of old Medieval tournaments, of strange futuristic robots-and-lasers plots. I knew the ruse, but didn’t care. Give me a book and fill up my sticker collection, I had a summer to fill.

My bookshelf has, essentially, grown up with me. The first was there when I was a boy, the plain, boxy white shelves with the picture books and children’s novels lined up in haphazard, disorganized cacophonies of edges and corners. The enormous picture books, ones with letters the size of my hands, would jut from the side awkwardly, unable to join their brethren. As I grew, and started to collect, I began filling up the shelves around the house, claiming the ends of desks and finding wherever I could to stuff an extra paperback. When I had grown as tall as I could as a teen, I bought myself the greatest of nerdy luxuries: a bookshelf taller than myself, with faux-mahogany finish slathered over every surface. With more years, the slats  began to slump with the weight, the books began to double-park. I have started shelving more books at the bottom to as a matter of structure, to maintain its precarious balance: it could very easily crush me to death, and I am deeply proud of that.

I’ve always found full bookshelves to be highly comforting. A row of spines, cracked or perfect; great, unbent and unfolded rows of pages; the up and down of their various heights, my own personal library skyline. The smell of books, the way they age like wine. The indescribable, peaceful harmony of alphabetizing my huge collection, of picking out each individual book and finding its proper home amongst its brothers and sisters. Sliding a book into its proper place on my shelf feels like found pieces of myself locking into place; it feels like the sound of the universe settling.

The shelves are filled with stories, both those penned by others and those I’ve attached to the books themselves. There are books I’ve bought, or had bought for me. Books I’ve found. Books I’ve received. Inherited. Rescued. Lost, and found once again.

On each page is a doorway to somewhere else, and not just where the author wants me to go. Each book reminds me of the time I read it, the person who etched the inscription, the friends I shared those words with. People I loaned the words to, and people who I convinced to buy a copy when I covetously deemed my own edition too precious. Books I read on a beach, or on a train, or on a plane. Books I read under sunlight and under rain and under snow. Each book is imbued with some small fraction of my life, tiny little fragments I can stow away safely in Dewey Decimal.

A bookshelf is full of home, but it’s also full of all the places I’ve ever been, all the places I might ever go. The meals where I try to cram food into my mouth while my left hand manages to simultaneously hold, prop open, and flip the pages of whatever I am reading. The long plane rides over the Pacific where I journeyed to a new life, christened with the untouched pages of a crisp new novel. The growing hunch in my spine from years of burrowing into hallway corners at school and university, wandering off into a story. The places I go, certainly, but also all the people I’ve been. The mes in elementary school and university, the me as a grown-up, and all the mes beyond. How my tastes have changed, how one book that seems garish and overdone now seemed so profound and perfect then. How I can place a book chronologically in my life with surprising accuracy.

My bookshelf is, essentially, an aloof biography; a veiled and difficult to parse cartography of where my life has taken me. When I see the bookshelf of another person, I try to divine out their secrets: what does their love of detective fiction  mean? Did they really read War and Peace? Why this cover, over some other cover? What wear and tear have they put their books through?

Visiting friends, I search through their bookshelves, the immaculate, perfected collections on fine pieces of carpentry;  the shoddy, half-buried towers and piles stowed into corners and under tables. What do these collections say? What stories do they hold, both the kind written in ink, and the kind that’s not? What do these books remind my friends of? Where did they go, what did they see, who did they meet? Where did this book come from, where will it end up?

A full bookshelf is a life well-lived, a calm mountain range of paper chronicling trips and meals and friends. Each new, unopened book is another journey you’re waiting to take, both inside the pages and without. If there’s a bookshelf in my home, I feel strangely comforted, oddly assured. It’s a mirror, a diary, a portrait. My bookshelf is everything I’ve been, and in time, everything I’ll be.

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17 thoughts on “The Zen of the Full Bookshelf

  1. This post really resonated with me ( me being the eldest sister mentioned in the post). I didn’t realize how much I missed losing myself in an awesome book ( the kind that keeps you up all night because you can’t bear to put it down), having spent the last 8 plus years with ‘other’ things occupying my time.

    Going back to taking the TTC to work has allowed me to recover at least 2 hours a day of good reading time. Ah books, how I’ve missed you. The habit is getting so bad I had to make a trip to Ikea to buy another book shelf to add to the ‘library’.

    My secret pleasure now is Friday visits to the Goodwill near my work where they have a fantastic selection of (often new – spines uncracked) books, offered at 50% off the already low Goodwill prices. I often come home with a whole bag for $20.

    P.S. I borrowed, read and returned your Hunger Games. Thanks, and you were right, not for Zoe.

    P.P.S. I think our other sister actually read a book this year ( after watching the movie first) maybe there’s hope for her to inherit the family obsession yet. Hahaha

    • Yeah, the bus time is what really kept me in reading all through university and B.Ed. I want to see to this Goodwill next time I am in town.

      Yeah, in a few years she should be fine to read them, but there’s little too much in there for her to read them now.

      And yes, I heard. We will poison her with books eventually. She has so many nice places for books in her house!

  2. Your grandparents would have been so proud of your passion for reading. It also makes your mother so happy she took the time to read to you and your sisters and join the local library. You know you come often when even the librarian knows your name.

  3. “The smell of books, the way they age like wine.” Is there anything better than that? It’s nice to find another traveler as obsessed with books as I am. I debated for a while whether I wanted to start a travel blog or a literature blog, and I have no idea why travel won, but there you have it. I want to read everything you have pictured on that bookshelf!

    • If I was a cologne sort of a man, I would find and bottle and wear old book smell.

      I’d need a lot more time to devote to reading and writing about my reading if I was going to blog just about it, but I know the temptation. Travel is a bit more immediate and allows for a lot of things to write, I’ve found.

      So do I! This is just after I cleared out most of my shelf (shipped them home with a cousin), and thus the remaining ones are those I haven’t read yet. Just the GRRMs I’d finished from this batch.

  4. When I was kid I LOVED the Box Car Children books, I bought them like crazy all the time, and read them all the time, then one day, right before 4th grade, I decided they were stupid, right in the middle of reading one, put it down and never read a Box Car Children’s mystery again.

  5. Don’t know how I missed this one but must have been during a very busy time for me; you know my (our) passion for books which is why all 29 nieces and nephews receive books from us (including at least four people from the above comments). Anyway, this was a great read and I am truly glad we share this passion.

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