As an only child with two working parents, books quickly became my constant and beloved companions growing up. I began establishing myself as A Reader early on in elementary school, thanks to a program called Accelerated Reader. The premise was an annual, ongoing “contest” where we could check out books from the library each week and then take short online reading comprehension quizzes about them. Each quiz earned us points that were evaluated at the end of the semester, totaled, and first, second, and third place winners for each grade were announced. While the prizes varied from getting to eat lunch with the principal and “special” lunch hour field trips to local restaurants, those weren’t what interested me.
I was a shy child; the last thing I wanted was to have to eat with our principal, be compelled to make small talk with a man 50 years my senior, and know the entire lunchroom could see that I spilled some tomato soup on my collar. I was driven to read by something small and secret and new to me at that point in life: pride. The breathless intellectual satisfaction of knowing I was reading a book that high schoolers usually tackled and understanding its plots and themes on some basic, instinctual level. When I ran across a vocabulary word I didn’t know, I logged in on a piece of notebook paper. Soon, I began anticipating the types of questions on the quizzes; I assigned myself weekday and weekend books; read in the back of my mother’s minivan on the way to and from my after school ballet classes.
I read. I read constantly. I read obsessively. It wouldn’t be until much later that I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but I’ve always suspected that these reading binges were probably one of the healthiest ways of expressing the disorder’s compulsions. It was also nice to be known for something, as I wasn’t much good at math or science and even worse at the games we played in P.E. I wasn’t popular or especially well-dressed like some of the girls in my classes with their Limited Too and Abercrombie jeans. Instead of long golden hair, mine was a nondescript brown and cropped into a short bob vaguely resembling a mushroom. In short, it just wasn’t happening for me at that point.
I ended up placing either first or second place from fourth through sixth grade. I got to see my name on the big bulletin board outside the front office each day. My parents got bragging rights and it felt lovely to be referred to as something other than just myself. More than that, though, it was the first time people started calling me adjectives like “smart” or “bright.” My teachers and the other students were starting to notice me, to approve of me, which led, of course, to learning to approve of myself.
I didn’t have the best grades, but I had read the most books.
I spent months with Nancy Drew and her sensible, 150-page mysteries; I read The Three Musketeers and Little Women and Tolkien’s trilogy, which led to my developing a taste for magic and world-building. Years later, as I sit here writing this, months away from turning 30, it’s easy to see what was happening: I was discovering myself, my tastes, my personal curiosities through reading about others. I’d lived hundreds of lives by the time I turned 12. It didn’t matter if they were fictional. That’s not how empathy works. When we read, we practice the art of empathy, of taking a walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s something so essential for both children and adults to learn and practice and actively use throughout their day-to-day.
We all want an identity; even as kids, we cling to certain things that make us feel sturdier, more tethered to this world. Books became that for me.
As for my bookcase these days: it’s smaller than I’d like it to be. With approximately 405 square feet to work with, however, options for interior decorating are slim. Forgoing “real” furniture, I decided to build one out of two sets of display shelving units I found on sale at Target. The instructions claimed their assembly would take me under 45 minutes, but because I’m me (with little to no engineering capacity or instinct) the project took me a little over three hours. It was oddly enjoyable doing something with my hands and I surprised myself by how absorbed I became in the whole process. It was a Tuesday night in October. I drank two glasses of pinot grigio and watched re-runs of The Office and felt truly capable for the first time in months. I only slammed my finger with the hammer once.
As for organization? Well, I don’t really have one specific system. As a Libra, I’m drawn to aesthetics. To colors. I wanted to make my bookcase one of the focal points in my studio apartment and so I thought for a couple of days before beginning the shelving process. Up until that point, my books were kept precariously stacked in three big liquor store boxes I’d had shipped across the country via the Greyhound bus shipping service. It took three weeks for them to arrive, the boxes were badly torn and stained with god only knows what, but it was cheap and effective. As a recent creative writing graduate without a job, cheap was optimal. Moving from Mississippi to Seattle meant I had to be scrupulous in what I chose to bring, so the books I have with me now are especial favorites—a smorgasbord of dog-eared, highlighted-to-an-inch-of-their-life novels, college and graduate school textbooks, and ones from childhood I couldn’t bear to part with. I’m defensive about how few there are, and oftentimes find myself overexplaining to guests that I own “so many more, I promise,” like the overly earnest literary snob I (unfortunately) sometimes am.
I finally decided to organize my books by shades of color. I have the Capitol Hill library in Seattle to thank for that: it’s a stunning building with high glass windows and a huge shelf organized with book spines ranging from ballet pinks to marigolds to dusty blues. It’s truly gorgeous—definitely Pinterest-worthy. I caught my breath the first time I walked past it, immediately took out my iPhone, and snapped a photo. Finding this organizational hack in my local library was the best, most wholesome sort of inspiration. It was fitting in a romantic and bookish way that real life rarely is. As an intensely visual person and learner, organizing by color rather than author or alphabet made far more sense. And besides, it was pretty.
Mary B. Sellers lives and works in Seattle, WA, and is at work on her second book, a novel of autofiction. She holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Mississippi and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Most recently her writing has appeared in Psychopomp Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Grimoire, Third Point Press, Sidereal Magazine, and Young Professionals of Seattle.