On Building Shelves and a Life of Reading

This essay was first published on Fourth & Sycamore.


snowFriday afternoon is winding down as I write this. Ohio is slated for snow tomorrow; not enough to get Boston worked up, but enough to send kids running for Memorial Hill in the park to hop on sleds that have seen far too little action this year. And it’s cold. My wife and daughter and I are moving into a new apartment this week, and we couldn’t have picked a chillier week to do it. If it gets much colder geese will start falling from the sky like little frozen cruise missiles.

Our new apartment has a large room that will serve as our library. I’ve emptied the boxes of our books and stacked the nearly two thousand volumes in the center of this room, waiting for the shelves I will need to build when we finish moving in. We’d been getting by with three inadequate bookcases in our current place; piles of homeless books had taken over our living room.

When my wife and I first fell in love we realized it would mean combining our libraries at some point, a process that for us carried the intimacy and commitment most people reserve for combining their bank accounts or buying their first home together. Endless daydreaming conversations were had over drinks about how the books would be organized, what we would do with duplicates, and other anal-retentive concerns only bibliophiles will understand. Seeing all of these books in one mass on the floor, intermingled and inseparable, feels like home.

Building shelves. I’m not a handyman. I can change the oil in my car and drill a hole in the wall to hang a picture, but anything more complicated than that warrants a trip to the mechanic or a call to the property manager. This makes me a bit of an oddity in a small town where it seems like every adult male automatically hangs drywall for a living, and if they also happen to practice medicine or work for a bank or pastor a church on the side, well, it’s nice that they have those hobbies. I didn’t inherit the handy bug from my mechanically-proficient dad, and I haven’t gained it by cultural osmosis here in Greenville either. When it comes to building things, it has to be simple. Bookshelves have exclusively right angles. Lumber, a circular saw, a pencil, a measuring tape, a hammer, and some nails are the only things you need. I have built a lot of functional bookcases over the years and exactly zero decorative rocking horses.

We have three bookcases currently. Two of them my dad built years ago; one in either my early childhood or before I was born, and one for my bedroom in the first house my parents owned, which they got when I was seventeen. Both are functional, nonfussy affairs of simple stained pine with an eye toward capacity and load-bearing. The many bookcases I’ve built over the years have ended up in other homes for various reasons, and are of similar construction. As carpenters, the Nilsen men believe in square corners, solid bracing, and not much else.

1971 August bookshelves 2
GPL stacks in an August, 1971 photo.

The third bookcase was purchased cheap from a Kmart that was going out of business last year, a low-rent version of an Ikea party puzzle. It’s made of black particle board that bows under weight. The bracing is so paltry as to come across as borderline sarcastic, like the designer was feeling particularly passive-aggressive toward his old engineering professor that day. This bookcase looks approximately as though it was purchased cheap from a Kmart that was going out of business last year.

In a few weeks the new shelves will all be done and the books will be organized. A hightop table will sit by the window, framed in by bookcases, and our new library will be complete. No, we haven’t read all the books we own, and it’s unlikely we ever will. That’s never the point. The point is we’re living lives in pursuit of beauty and knowledge. Books are a big part of that.

We’re a family of readers. My parents were and are readers and made sure books were a big part of our home when my sister and I were growing up. We would read aloud, read alone, read before bed, read in tree houses, read in the crawl space under the house (atmosphere, you understand). Words and characters flowed together to create references as real as lived stories, the myths in our books as foundational as the myths of our strange childhood. When my daughter was a baby I would carry her around the house in a sling and run her tiny hands over the spines of books, telling her the titles, wondering when she would read them. Rocking her to sleep at night I would recite poetry to her, Byron and Dickinson and Mueller and Blake, her liquid coal eyes soaking in words she didn’t understand. She has her own bookshelf now in her new room, with her own growing collection of books.

It’s time to leave for the day. It’s the end of another week in this building full of books. By the time you read this is will be Monday and we will have gotten what snow we’re going to get. My wife and daughter and I will be moved into our new place, fresh lumber will be stacked on the back porch for our sturdy new shelves, and a new week will be beginning here in our century old library. Books are a way of life for me; maybe they are for you too. Come on in and get something to read.

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