Project Bookshelf: Julie Jeanell Leung

My book shelves reveal glimpses of who I was and who I hope to be, a partial identity, loosely organized, deeply loved. One shelf above a built-in desk in our kitchen holds books from childhood and high school years, books I had when we moved into this house. The small Shakespeare collection spans generations, marking time and transitions, like the collection of black and white photos on the shelf beneath it. When I was young, my ambitious mother gifted me a thick volume of Shakespeare’s works that now features tooth marks from one of my father’s pet rabbits who nibbled on the velveteen cover. Books I bought for my children’s Shakespeare studies (No Fear Shakespeare), and my own copy of Macbeth from high school sit alongside some of the only books I have from my mother, her Shakespeare plays from college, the six-digit dorm number written inside the cover like a secret code.

Covers stand out to me: how I peeled away the purple cover of Sound and Sense during the sophomore English poetry unit, how the bright orange spines on the Penguin editions of Grapes of Wrath and Dubliners are now faded to a strange pale hue. When I immersed myself in a book, I dog-eared the pages and wrote notes, even occasionally drew cartoons in the margins. Books could be so tangible. Raymond Carver, Barbara Kingsolver, and Flannery O’Connor represent my early passion for short stories. Books from a world literature class in high school with a beloved teacher — and his own book published a few years ago — mix with books from an intense Holocaust literature course in college. My published pieces and my MFA thesis are also on this shelf, so high above my head that I rarely reach for them, but I can see them if I look up. 

I started my low-residency MFA program at the Rainier Writing Workshop (RWW) soon after we had finished our bonus room over the garage, and within a few years I had filled the new built-in bookshelves with my new acquisitions and strengthened identity in creative nonfiction. On this bookcase, I’ve also stored binders of notes and a mug from my grad school residencies. Autographed books from faculty members who have passed away — Judith Kitchen and Sherry Simpson — seem especially precious now. Essay collections by Brenda Miller, Dinah Lenney, and Lia Purpura represent the three amazing mentors I had at RWW. The one short story collection is George Saunder’s excellent and haunting Tenth of December. I have also collected a number of books on marine science, one of my passions. For my critical paper project I focused on writing about the natural world, and I loved not only the work of the late Eva Saulitis (whose Becoming Earth shows me how I want to die) but also David Gessner’s humorous writings and Amy Leach’s lyrical Things That Are. Through the years, I have also collected a number of books on writing life and pedagogy, for my own encouragement, and I hope to encourage others too. Books published by friends and classmates inspire me to continue. And I collect vintage books for research including childhood favorites such as a National Geographic series on wildlife and In Search Of titles. 

Recently, after spending time managing limited space on bookshelves and making difficult choices, I’ve started accumulating e-books. On the island where I live, it can be convenient and efficient to have a book available at any time to read on the phone while waiting for the ferries during travels to and from Seattle. After some recent purchases over the holidays, this collection ranges from poetry (The Galleons by Rick Barot, RWW Director), essay collections (the enchanting World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukamatathil), and even field guides (What It’s Like to Be a Bird). When I buy novels, I tend to purchase them in ebook form. In recent years, I’ve read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson three times for different book clubs in three different media versions, most recently as an audio book. I read Ocean Vuong’s novel on my phone. And of course essay collections fit well with ferry waiting: Jia Tolentino, Leslie Jamison, Kiese Laymon (which I remembering reading in a zoo parking lot on a winter night while waiting for my daughter). 

Finally I have my most recent stack of books that sits on the carpet by the sofa in our living room, since I’ve run out of bookshelves. I’ve been intentionally reading My Grandmother’s Hands at a slow pace. I am becoming an antiracist, thanks to Ibram Kendi and others. In this picture, I notice I am drawn to secrets and mysteries: The Secret Lives of Color is stacked beside The Secret Lives of Pronouns and The 99% Invisible City. And, of course, I continue to collect stories of the natural world. I love reading about the wild and unexplained and wondering what I will learn and who and what I will become.

The photo of the author at the beach.

Julie Jeanell Leung received her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in a number of publications, including Bellingham Review, Blue Lyra Review, and Grist: The Journal for Writers. Julie lives with her husband on an island near Seattle where she volunteers as a citizen scientist and counts sea stars on the rocky shores.

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