When you look at a bookshelf, you always look for what stories it holds—never for what the story is about the bookshelf. Being a bibliophile, better known as a used-book hoarder, I have a total of four bookshelves in my room. I have desktop bookshelves, nightstand bookshelves, and cheap Ikea particle board, which came with cartoon instructions. For these furnishings, I either bought them from a retailer or found them at Goodwill, but that isn’t true for the lawyer’s bookcase in my room.
Decked-out in three tiers of knowledge-wielding shelves, I wanted to know more about this piece of furniture that carries my backpacking stove, DVD’s, Sartre, Melville, W.C.W., Szymborska, works of Steinbeck, and posters, still wound tight with dry rotting latex bands. Braving the wail of my visiting newborn niece and the threat of my sister lecturing about the adverse effects of fluoride in our drinking water, I went to ask my father about the ontology of this roughed-up bookcase.
Between commercial breaks of NCIS, I caught just about all there was to know about it. Of course my father conceded that there wasn’t much to know about this bookcase.
“It was my Grandmother’s. I remember it being by her front door, the house on Newport Lane in Morehead, NC. I never knew much about it, at least until Grandmother died. Your Aunt Peggy, Mama, and I fought tooth and nail to take it from my aunts. When we got there, the buzzards had already taken Papa Garner’s hunting rifle, Grandmother’s jewelry, and left nothing but this bookcase, a can of peaches my grandmother preserved herself, and the painting of the sailing ship I got hanging in my room.”
My father paused for a second and glanced at the china cabinet standing just a few inches beneath the crack-plastered ceiling.
“What you ought to know about is that right there. My father’s father built that with his own hands. He was a timber man. He felled the trees, planed the lumber, and even fixed a leg when it blew over in a hurricane.”
There was another pause for a moment or so as I jotted down all that was being recollected to me.
“Well, that’s all I got to tell you,” said my dad before slouching back into our habitual niceties of discussing prime time television.
There’s more to this bookcase then he said. He didn’t talk about how my brother and I nearly broke the damned thing by forgetting that it comes apart in tiers. I dropped the whole case once, breaking one of the closing doors clean off and cracking another pane of glass to give my humble bookcase that abandoned-factory-window-look.
I guess there was something to know about this bookcase after all, and it would seem that my father had more to tell me than about this bookcase. It’s kind of cool, in a weird and creepy way, to think of how the great grandmother I never knew might have used this bookcase. I wonder if she used it for books. I wonder if she was a strict pragmatist of that sort, or I wonder if she preferred it to hold pictures of her girl, Viola, my father’s mother, who I also never met.
I must admit I feel like I’ve been taking advantage of my bookcase. I am accustomed to shoving other people’s stories onto it and never wondering what there was to know about the bookcase itself. I suppose most things are that way. We look at things and never wonder how they came to be. We look at things and never ask about the people that those items might have touched, the story the bookcase has to tell.
Grant Howard is the Community Relations Intern at the Sundress Academy for the Arts and a senior Creative Writing major at the University of Tennessee. He was awarded both the Knickerbocker Prize for Poetry and the Margaret Artley Woodruff Award for Creative Writing in 2014. When Grant isn’t questioning the axiarchic value of a line break, he is drinking in the scenery during his tromps through the hills of the Southern Appalachia.