What is a bookshelf? What is it really? Just a place for books, like a face is a place for features? Why can it make a room? How does it calm me down when I leave the world behind at midnight?
The names. Donald Barthelme. Georges Perec. Stanislaw Lem. Roland Barthes. Martin Amis. Don Delillo. Franz Kafka. I’ve realized there is only one woman here. Mary Shelley with her Frankenstein. What is wrong with me? Why didn’t I realize this before?
A bookshelf is how I wish my brain looked inside. Three rows organized conveniently. Perfect recall. What was it again, the first line of Howl? There it is, the slim little black-and-white binding huddled next to The Waste Land, which I stuck next to it because it was poetry, but also because it was skinny.
I see the best minds of my generation displayed by subject.
A bookshelf has topography. A bookshelf is a landscape of idea. A bookshelf is not “what,” but “where.” Or “who.” Who is your bookshelf? Is your bookshelf you? Or is it who you want to be? Do you have more books than you’ve read? Or do you keep only those books you’ve read and intend to read again, and that’s why you have them? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging you and your refrigerator of literature. I’m just asking: What do you have those books for? Are they pixels in a design that saves you from the frailties of contemporary life? Do you stare, hungover, at the bar-code of color and titles and feel graced by a history that would otherwise escape your room of personal effects?
Do you even read at all? Or maybe you Wiki the authors and display the body of their work on your Ikea EXPEDIT like a sarcophagus—to memorialize, not to consult. To advertise, not to discuss. I’m still not judging you.
But what is a bookshelf, then? Is it meant to disturb and discourage? When you consider the sacrifice that each book represents you feel witness to a massacre of time. The Complete Works of Leo Tolsoy. Wasn’t it he who asked how much land a man needs? For the body, six feet of earth. But not even six inches of shelf for the mind.
When I look across the street, the man showering on floor five doesn’t know about the woman watching television one floor down. A bookshelf is like this. Neighbors glean nothing from proximity. It’s about containing your own idea. It’s artistic copyright. It’s self actualization.
Really, though. What is a bookshelf? It’s a stack of colored paper, segmented, aesthetically attuned to the Western room. Corners and edges. Actually, one of the books I have talks about this: Gaston Bachelard asks in his Poetics of Space how the house, a “geometrical object of planes and right angles…so welcomes human complexity, idiosyncrasy….” I would not have the answer yet because I haven’t read the book. It was lent to me, but I love the title and I’ve kept it and read its spine over and over. A year has gone by and I’ve still not read it. First I’ve got The Brothers Karamozov; The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (who would want to read a book with that title?…but I have to because I pretend I already have…); Voyage au bout de la nuit; and, for the third time, The Sun Also Rises, because maybe now, after what I’ve been through, I can really understand Jake.
I know this box of words. I’ve lived where these books have lived. I’ve looked out from the third floor and wondered who my neighbor was. I’ve stammered out a year-long thought and tried to square off my idea. I’ve bound my life with concision, clarity, and I’ve lined up to be read. I am here, a slim spine between two others, marking my place, occupying my two or three inches of history.