When I fantasize about home ownership, I dream of bay windows in which the cats will sunbathe, hardwood floors that heartily creak, and a massive library for all my books.
A key part of this fantasy is owning enough books to fill an entire room. Currently, I own enough books to fill two small bookshelves.
These are some of my books. The bookshelf itself was purchased in a parking lot for $12. It’s wobbly and chipped, but it was the first bookshelf I bought on my own.
Most of these books were given to me by friends, or salvaged from giveaway piles, or bought secondhand. Some of the more yellowed ones belonged to my dad. I’d like to think they capture my essence pretty well, from the Dolly Parton biography to the Susan Sontag to the Miranda July to The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories.
In March, at the start of the pandemic, I drove down to Houston to be with my family, thinking it would be a short trip and I would return to Chicago in a few weeks when the pandemic blew over. Since that hasn’t happened and won’t happen for a while, I ended up deciding to stay and make Houston my home.
This is the bookshelf I have in Texas. The rest of my books are back in Chicago with my roommate, waiting for me to come back for them.
The bookshelf itself was my mom’s when she was a kid. The tchotchkes are mine (including the fake diploma from Sunnydale Highschool). These are the books I brought with me when I drove down to Texas and the books I’ve purchased since the start of the pandemic. And some more of my dad’s books. When Houston issued a stay-at-home order, books were a welcome escape, and I relied on them to inspire emotions in me other than the usual cycle of boredom and anxiety. Some of my favorites have been Bunny by Mona Awad (Heathers meets The Craft meets bougie MFA program) and The Girls by Emma Cline (cults, girlhood, the cult of girlhood).
These bookshelves are humble, and that’s because I rarely purchase books. For reading material, I usually check out books from the library. In 2019, I read 43 books. Out of those, 37 were checked out from the library. The Chicago Public Library has a branch in every neighborhood. There’s the Harold Washington Library downtown with its gargoyles and arched windows, and my local branch with its no-fuss brown brick. Generally, no matter where you are, a library is within walking distance. And in the fall of 2019, they eliminated all late fees to increase access citywide. Without the threat of fines, a book that had been overdue since 1934 was returned.
My favorite emails to receive were the ones that told me my holds were ready. I loved walking to the library and seeing all the books set aside for me in the “holds” section. Every time, it was like my birthday. There were my presents, all wrapped up in laminate.
When I left Chicago, I had a copy of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s letters to one another checked out. I had checked it out months ago at my girlfriend’s recommendation, and since I figured I would be back to the city soon, I didn’t bother returning it. My girlfriend is a devoted lover of Virginia Woolf, and our courtship process included making Woolf memes, reading Mrs. Dalloway together, and reading snippets of Woolf and Sackville-West’s letters aloud to one another.
Once a month, I receive an email from the Chicago Public Library telling me The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf has been automatically renewed. Because of the pandemic, I haven’t been able to explore the Houston Public Library yet, but I look forward to seeing if their collection of Victorian gay letters compares.
As a kid, I was no Matilda. I’d check out a book from the school library every now and then, but it wasn’t a place I frequented. In college, the library was where I went to do homework, but I rarely checked out books. It wasn’t until my senior year that I fully realized I could read literally any book I wanted. For free! I checked out Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior and reveled at the idea of pleasure reading at no personal cost.
The library isn’t just amazing because of the free books. It’s amazing because it’s one of the only public spaces you don’t have to pay to use. Even without a membership, you can still enjoy the space. It’s open to anyone and everyone. When most institutions prioritize profit, an entirely free public space is a rare and special thing.
One day, I hope to have a sprawling library, books lining each wall. But no matter how large my personal library grows, I’ll always use the public library. It will always be my other bookshelf.
Kathleen Gullion is a writer based in Houston. Her work has appeared in the Esthetic Apostle, Coachella Review, F Newsmagazine, and others. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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