When I was in middle school, I wrote a piece called “Where do they fly?” about authors and their creations. The gist of the piece was my wonder and curiosity fuelled by the design a writer’s world contains, and how I would love to fly to the secret place in the mind where that magic happens. The human spirit has always amazed me—the longing to be a part of something bigger than oneself, of that which only the imagination can fathom. I always suspected the desire comes from living in a broken world where any enchantment has turned old and dusty, where dreams are clipped early and streets are covered in shattered bits of glass. We try to escape from those streets. We try to not let them change us by dulling the shine in our eyes and clamping down on our wandering hearts. I will always admire authors for being able to run to another realm and pull anyone interested along with them.
My current bookshelf, pictured above, is a very small portion of the collection I keep at my parent’s house in Michigan. I brought a few stacks of books I hope to read over the summer, and only wish I could share photos of the vintage book case I’m so proud of across the country. In it, you can find almost every title written by the genius Mr. Stephen King. Oddly enough, I hate horror as a genre, but I absolutely love King’s style of writing. He has a way of communicating poetically with generations past, present, and future, and bringing the reader so completely into his sphere that they start wondering what is really possible in day-to-day life. I especially loved his time-travel piece, 11/22/63, about the assassination of JFK. I also feverishly read his fantasy series The Dark Tower and cried with disappointment when I was finished and could no longer be taken away with The Gunslinger.
As a child, I read series like Junie B Jones, The Boxcar Children, and Michigan Chillers. Once I reached puberty, my taste began to change. I read books assigned in school that I thoroughly enjoyed, such as Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, as well as novels recommended to me by teachers in private, like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Brontë and Bradbury opened my eyes to the existence of civil disobedience and questioning authority. The idea that those with power might not be of the highest morals, and the notion that a few brave souls can challenge society’s conventionality, floored me.
In high school, I took a creative writing class. We had a poetry section and I discovered Billy Collins. I hadn’t known that poetry could make you feel so connected to humanity, like the act of suffering and loving were works of art. I immediately ordered The Art of Drowning and Questions about Angels. I began to write my own poetry almost every day. When I graduated and started traveling, I found a small poetry book in a used book shop. It was by a contemporary poet named Sarah Kay and I was amazed by how similar I felt our styles were. She encouraged me to put my pieces together into a manuscript.
From there, I discovered Mary Karr, who is a poet as well as a memoirist. Thus began my infatuation with memoir. Mary Karr’s memoir The Liars’ Club changed my world. I saw my own stories, trauma, and glory in different lighting. I imagined stringing together the scenes from my life like a movie, my voice narrating and detached like hers, while somehow letting the audience get to know the very inner workings of my soul and those I encountered. Once I discovered memoir and finished Karr’s other masterpieces, I read Jeannette Walls, Jennifer Lauck, Tobias Wolff, and Maya Angelou, (who also doubled as a poet). The struggles, obstacles, and downright craziness they each survived gave me a reestablished hope in my species, as well as hours of entertainment and fulfillment.
My Montana bookshelf holds many more memoirs to be read, such as The Color of Water, Drinking: a love story, The Duke of Deception, and Fierce Attachments. It also holds books of the classic variety. John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Grapes of Wrath taught me about the progress of society in both ugly and beautiful ways. Steinbeck is great at giving voice to such a diverse cast of characters and even the smallest moments he writes about intrigue me. I also recently discovered the crude, hilarious, and poetic stories written by J.P Donleavy. Although probably considered controversial for his mischievous characters, I enjoy the unique chaos within his books The Ginger Man, and The Onion Eaters. I also added more Nabokov to my personal library after reading and appreciating Lolita.
On my Michigan bookshelf, sporadically placed between Stephen King, sit favorites from my year in university. I took an honors program, and the courses were literature and composition heavy. In one, we studied a lot of Greek plays and old epics. I was introduced to Gilgamesh, a work of mythology about a warrior who goes on a long and defining journey. It’s considered a poem, probably making it the oldest in history. The style is remarkable. It starts with a stanza about the town Gilgamesh is from, artfully crafts different trials and dreams throughout, and circles back to use the first stanza again at the end of the book when he returns home.
We also looked at works by Homer and Greek plays like Medea. The conflict and emotion in those plays resonated with me and led me to purchase more Greek mythology in hopes of studying it in depth one day. In another course, we read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which I found difficult to read due to the topics and also impossible to stop reading. Dystopian books aren’t always my favorite, but I love how they make me think and question the world around me, especially when they were written some time ago and possess close parallels to modern society. My all-time favorite assigned reading from university was the novel Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. It’s a tale of many stories—a delicate working of lives intersecting and dispersing and the ways each character influenced another’s path. Even a small instance might have a large ripple effect. It was heart-wrenching and amazingly written.
I have quite the variety of ideas between my eastern and western bookshelves, and am always looking to expand my mind. It excites me that there are endless works of literature out there, any of which could be my new favorite. I would like to think it’s never too late for any man, woman, or child who is struggling to stumble upon just the right words that finally bring them away from it all, back to a state of oneself that has no shame or fear, only wonder and daring.
In schools, they make curriculum more strict year after year so that each teacher barely has a minute of class time to introduce anything deep or creative. The banning of books is a scary reality and so it’s important for us to sneak away—after class, after graduation, after and during each chapter of our own lives—to each end of the earth. To sit with each other and write whatever we can see behind our closed lids and feel coursing through our veins. We must not stop making the ability to meet through words timeless. One’s bookshelf isn’t just a piece of furniture or a compilation of items. It’s a link to the past, present, and future. It’s hope on a bad day and awakening when you begin sleepwalking. It holds lessons, secrets, and epiphanies. In conclusion, be wary of the state of mind of anyone who doesn’t have some form of stashed literature in their dwelling place.
Emily DeYoung (she/her/hers) is a student of the world from Michigan, who travels as often as possible. She has been to over 25 countries since graduating high school, and uses the people, places, and small moments she experiences for inspiration when writing. Emily has one published poetry collection, How the Wind Calls the Restless, which won first place in the Writer’s Digest 30th Annual Self-Published Book Awards Contest last year (2021). She loves reading memoir, camping, large dogs who think they are lap-sized, and listening to classic and punk rock.