Project Bookshelf with SAFTA Intern Nora Walsh-Battle

I don’t own a physical bookshelf. Not even a cluster of milk crates stacked together, or one of those cheap wire monstrosities that warp spines and dent pages so thoroughly you might as well have just sent your books through the dryer. No bookshelf, no windowsill where even a perpetually closed pane will still lead to some water damage. And I can’t see myself changing that any time soon, so target someone else with your ads, IKEA–except the oversized stuffed animals, particularly the DJUNGELSKOG. I would like very much to keep seeing those ads, thank you.

Books have always been an essential part of my life, from my childhood where I spent hours tied up in titles I had no intention of buying in the cafe of my local, now-defunct Borders Bookstore to my college years, where I majored in English but more often than not found myself ignoring assigned coursework for the delights of the campus library’s ‘New Releases’ shelf. My main rebellion of undergrad was beginning to acquire books that I had only read once or sometimes hadn’t read at all, judging by cover blurbs or word of mouth alone. Textbooks were a sterling exception to this tendency and I’m proud to say I made it four years only purchasing two, renting less than a dozen. 

When I explain to people the strict criteria my parents had enforced for acquiring books, they assume this minimalism extends to all aspects of their consumption. This is not the case at all and in almost all other circumstances, my parents could be classified as hoarders. Middle-aged when they had me, their only child, our relationship has always been more like that of a landlord and tenant. My parents had packed our house to the brim by the time I was old enough to want for things and, aware of the impediments this want had caused them, they tried their best to curtail it by limiting my possessions and insisting they stay confined to my bedroom. Avid readers themselves, this aversion to accumulating books seems poignant to me. Like they recognized the escape reading provided and refused to risk it becoming tainted by the very thing I would need to escape from. 

In the years since I’ve been out in the world, my collection of books has grown considerably. Currently, they live against one wall of my room, stacked in two rows that rotate regularly with no variation asserting any aesthetic value that would suggest anything other than laziness on my end. The frontmost contains fresh reads, the books which I acquired unread, and pressing re-reads, the books I keep coming back to. The back row contains volumes I’ve read so many times I don’t find myself needing to reach for them, as well as those I’m hoping to trade in at my local used bookstore. Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex stands as a pillar of the back row, once comfortably in the former category as one of the first books I read upon my exodus from the YA section, but seemingly more and more like the latter following the increasing criticism of its portrayal of intersexuality and the accusations of sexual misconduct against its author. The front row is also home to: the classic Middlemarch which I have many times feigned familiarity with, Spinning, Tillie Walden’s graphic memoir, not one, not two, but three copies of Crush by Richard Siken, all annotated differently with my own marks and those of borrowers, the latest Ottessa Moshfegh novel, and the behemoth Infinite Jest, which after years of derision I aspire to revisit, although it keeps finding its way back to the bottom of the stack every time I unearth it. 

To further complicate this already haphazard system, lately copies of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (a perennial favorite that catapulted me out of the YA section in the first place and shaped my reading sensibilities for years after), They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib, and Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden hopscotch between these subjective designations without objectively, as actual objects, landing in either place, instead waiting dog-eared on my bedside table or splayed open at my workspace, ready to be picked up and penciled with abandon. If this admission has made you raise a hand to your heart in disbelief or concern, I’m sorry! Despite their novelty, I can’t bring myself to regard the books I own with any preciousness. My logic is that I won’t ever be the same as I did in the moment I acquired them or the same as I was before reading, regardless of the impact of the book, so why try to maintain that illusion as far as the pages themselves? 

It’s for this same reason that I’m reluctant to acquire an actual bookshelf. Reluctant to commit myself to owning one more thing I’ll have to be responsible for, and likely fail at, maintaining. As long as my books remain unshelved, I feel like I’m still engaged with them, like my reading list is less like a catalogue and more like a creed, a statement of my belief in the written word’s importance. 

Nora Walsh-Battle is a recovering stand-up comedian currently living and working on an organic farm outside of Asheville while she plans her next move. She is endlessly enraptured by the poetry of Richard Siken, considers Wikipedia to be a primary source, and is a certified Excel pro.

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