It seems customary in a bookshelf post to talk about the books in one’s collection—significant books from your childhood, coming-of-age tomes, works you’re slogging through for school or just for fun.
I want to talk about the bookshelves.
When my partner and I bought our house, it was February 2020, right before the pandemic started in earnest. We were super nervous we wouldn’t be able to move in after the 90-day escrow, because all of the bureaucratic offices we needed were shut down indefinitely. Somehow, we were able to move in on time. In the meantime, however, we plotted the projects we wanted to complete once we moved in: chief among them was adding built-in bookshelves around the fireplace, and building wall-to-wall shelving in the office, to go with the existing shelving in the basement, to house our bloated book collection.
I hate DIY. I didn’t want a fixer-upper home or something with a lot of “potential,” but bookshelves were one project we couldn’t avoid. It just made sense to do them ourselves. Our lofty goal was to have all of the shelves built within the first six months we lived in the house. For various reasons, that goal went out the window. In fact, we didn’t get our office shelves built until a month ago, fueled by my mom’s impending visit. For years, books in the office were staked three rows deep and 20 books high along the walls. We could never find anything, and removing books was a precarious, irritating affair. It was a disaster.
We did get those living room shelves done, though. Probably no more than three months after moving in, I was sanding, staining, and sealing wood and running back and forth to Home Depot for brushes and extra screws. All of the books in the living room are fiction and poetry. When I sit on the couch, I can gaze at all of the options for reading, from the relaxing—Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, H.P. Lovecraft—to the taxing and sometimes overwhelming Roberto Bolaño and Clarice Lispector (though the former are all provocative and overwhelming in their own ways). I pretend I’m in a bookstore where I’m somehow always pleasantly surprised by the selection.
Getting these done was an incredible relief; each shelf is 14 feet long and 9 inches wide, supported by dozens of brackets. There are also nearly identical shelves on the other side of the room as well.
The sheer enormity of the shelves here means there’s space left for new accumulations. While I’m happy about that fact, seeing the empty spaces makes me feel irrationally sheepish sometimes, like the room is a nearly-nude extension of myself. My partner and I are both in academia, and our office contains our theory and philosophy books, along with some art tomes. We have a long list of books we want to procure over the next couple of years—in particular, we salivate over The Collected Works of Marx and Engels, a 50-volume set of beautifully stoic hardbacks, which currently live mostly in PDF form on our computers.
Bookshelves are an almost-frantic priority my partner and I share, whatever our housing situation. I sometimes think about potential buyers that will walk through our house one day; I know all of these shelves aren’t for everyone. I think they’ll invite a very particular kind of person, a small segment of the population who doesn’t need that space for anything but planes to gaze and peruse, organize, purge, and lament.
Anna Mirzayan is an arts writer, poet, researcher, and doctoral candidate in Theory and Criticism. She is currently based in Pittsburgh, where she is the editor-in-chief of the Bunker Review at Bunker Projects. Her poetry chapbook, Donkey-girl and Other Hybrids, was published in 2021 by Really Serious Literature. You can find some of her art writing at art-agenda, Square Cylinder, and Hyperallergic.