This is a snapshot the bookshelf in the living room of the apartment I had after getting divorced, the first place of my own where I had a bedroom for both of my daughters. The shelf sat against a long wall that clearly had been designed for a television set. It was the largest thing in the room by far. The shelves themselves had been purchased for fifty dollars from an Iowa City boutique that went out of business. I think I paid fifty dollars. The shelf has a story of its own.
The bookshelf holds the keys to my entire life. The Seth Thomas clock my mother once snatched off the mantelpiece and hurled at my dad during one of their many drunken fights. The brown moonshine jug that the two of them bought in New England when they were newly married. An Argent lamp that was in my great grandmother’s bedroom when she moved from New York to Tombstone, Arizona in 1880. A stuffed animal my daughter made while we watched cartoons together. A wooden cutout superhero created by one of my best high school friends. A cartoon-faced clock I made when I lived in a huge loft in Portland that hung on the wall above many fantastic parties. A framed 1928 campaign poster of Herbert Hoover I bought from an antique store.
And then there are the books. Stacked in random order, there are fiction and poetry and philosophy and pulp. Reference books I have had for forty years. Books that belonged to my father, my mother. Reaching in and taking one out at random is one of my great pleasures, for just holding it will usually lead me into another world. I can remember my father’s hands as he wrote the inscription in the Webster’s Dictionary he gave me when I went off to college. Dear Josh, The words are all here. Just put them in the right order. Love, Dad
I lived above a bookstore in a city famous for them, and was fond of trading odd jobs for store credit. I’d usually buy enormous art books I could otherwise never afford. I love thrift stores and the treasures they sometimes yield. When I hold a book from my shelf, I can tell you a story about where I got it, what I was doing, what I remember. Books I paid a dime for, books I put on a credit card, the countless poetry books I bought when I was drunk and was moved to weeping by a line or two.
Reading the books brings memories of another sort. Living in the Oregon hills and crouching in a garden shed by a glowing woodstove while the wind howled outside, sipping whiskey and smoking while reading The Three-Day Blow by the light of an oil lamp. Or sitting on a train trying to get through The Sound and the Fury before Christmas vacation was over and realizing I could never in a million years understand it and then, as though passing through a gate, understanding it and reading it and seeing what it really is. Reading on stage at random from Outlaw Poetry while two women acted out the words and a jazz duo improvised at top volume.
I sat on a trolley reading an 1893 copy of Thoughts by Marcus Aurelius. A student of 1895 had penciled notes in the margins and underlined certain passages. He was trying to improve his character. The book had been written in the first century AD and read by this boy in 1893. As I sat there it was 1998. Now it’s 2017. The thread of time wends through that book. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
These days I don’t read as much as I once did before I carried a computer in my pocket that could show me every newspaper in the world at a touch, display a kindle library of thousands of titles, play any movie or TV show or song I could think of. I used to sit and lose myself in books in a way I no longer do.
I love this bookshelf. I love what it means and what I remember about it, the memories that surround it. Though I still have all the items, this exact configuration existed for only a few weeks. Though sad, that is how it should be. At its best, a bookshelf is an organic thing, evolving and shifting.
So the next time you visit a friend (or better still, a stranger), take a look at their bookshelf and see what it says to you.
About them, about yourself. Look for the familiar or the strange.
This is in response to The Daily Post’s request for collage.