I worship, in this order: chaos, books, evocation. The proof is abundant on my shelves.
In August, for the first time in my life, I moved into a home with enough extra rooms that I could have an office, distinct from my bedroom and my living room. A dedicated space for my books. A home library. More room than I’ve ever had before. I marveled at the decadence: I alphabetized the books by author’s last name when I unpacked them, feeling like a librarian. In the past, I have been a book stacker, crowder, heaper. I distinctly remember my childhood bedroom and a pile of books six feet tall between the wall and the singular white bookshelf. Once, I had a desk-lamp that sat too low to warm my hermit crab tank, and so I piled four books underneath it to give it height. Not anymore, I thought when I moved. I would be someone who keeps her shelves dusted. I’ll file each new title in its appropriate space. I’ll drink more tea. I’ll meal prep.
As it turns out, organization—especially alphabetization—is tedious. After I’d unpacked them all, my books were wedged so tightly onto each shelf there was no room for growth. When I brought home a new title by Margaret Atwood, I realized I didn’t have any room in the A’s on my shelf, and to make space required shifting books down shelf by shelf, some of the A’s to the B’s, B’s to the C’s, and on to the end of the alphabet, four bookshelves away. Ridiculous, I said. Who does that? Not me, anyway. I tossed the book on top of the shelf. It was joined over the next weeks by more, books I’ve checked out from the library or were lent to me.
What’s more, it felt weird to sit in my living room and not be surrounded by books anymore. What do people put in their living room if not bookshelves? I wondered. I don’t own many knick-knacks. To placate my loneliness, I filled a shelf with books written by my friends, and beneath that, the entire 12-book Bloody Jack series by LA Meyer (in hardcover!). I grew up with Jacky the way some people grew up with Harry Potter, but I have never met another person in the world who has read all these books. (If you have, email me. We’re soulmates.)
I find I like to be surrounded by a bit of mess, works in progress. I do not often bother to reshelf books after I pull them to reference for various projects: the television script and novel versions of Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett; Life of Pi by Yann Martel; a dog-eared copy of The Two Towers with Legolas on the cover, which I’ve owned for nearly fifteen years. I am fifteen again, looking at it.
My shelves are, overwhelmingly, prose. My shelving system does not distinguish between genres because I have so little poetry, and the CNF nestles side by side with the fiction, which is pretty representative of how I consider the two genres on a craft level, anyway. Fairy-tales, science fiction, classic literary canon I’ll never return to, pop culture, astronomy, all of them nest together. Carl Sagan sits right next to Karen Russell, alphabetically. George Saunders is on that shelf, too, and Shakespeare, and in between them is Jason Segel, the actor, whose middle-grade novel I got signed when he visited the bookstore where I used to work.
There’s the signed copy of jelly roll by Kevin Young, which I bought for an ex but never had the opportunity to pass on. There’s Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up, which I started and never finished the summer after I graduated college, still with the teddy bear bookmark in its pages. There’s the copy of The Chronicles of Narnia I’ve owned since middle school, and there’s The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan, recommended to me my senior of college and so life-changing that I’ve assigned it every year I’ve taught creative nonfiction since. I bought that copy of The Little Prince in Paris. Several other titles in London, Cardiff, Dublin.
That, finally, is my point: evocation. These shelves are my altar (literally, there is still wax on top of one from where I’ve sent up many prayers by candlelight). They house my lives, memories, deities. Spindly vined plants curtain from the top shelf, draped next to windchimes and salt lamps and small trinkets. Framed photographs of my late lovebird, the fiercely mourned and daily missed absolute love of my life, sit front and center on the ledge, holding him, as the shelves do all my ghosts, warm and close.
I have concluded I will never be someone who regularly organizes or dusts her shelves, but I find that the books rarely get lost or dirty. I am always surprised at the lack of grime, but pleased too. Things that sit forgotten get dusty—a lack of dust implies activity, aliveness. I haven’t touched some of these books in years, but I like thinking of them as alive, because they are.
Samantha Edmonds is the author of Pretty to Think So (Selcouth Station Press, 2019) and The Space Poet (Split Lip Press, forthcoming 2020). Her fiction and nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, Literary Hub, Black Warrior Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others. A PhD student in creative writing at the University of Missouri, she currently lives in Columbia.