Project Bookshelf with Social Media Intern Mary B. Sellers

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.

Project Bookshelf with Editorial Intern Emma Hudson

I’m going to start by admitting the image on the left is not my bookshelf. When I texted my mom to ask if she could take a picture of my high school bookshelf so I could write this transformative article about my finely-tuned reading material she sent a picture of my 16-year-old sister’s bookshelf.

Mom: Cate said hers is more artsy.

I had to laugh. We have the same black wood-finished bookcase from Target, but somehow, hers surpasses me in a made-up ‘Artsy Bookshelf Contest.’ I guess fairy lights must be the sole determiner of coveted ‘artsy’ titles.

Yes, my sister always had a talent for complimenting me and insulting me in one sentence—a quality I ultimately love about her. On one hand, the art on her shelf is art I made back in the days of free time, but on the other, she’s insinuating my bookshelf aesthetic is no match for her elephant tape dispenser

Maybe she has a point. I organize books by where they fit on my shelf. My one back home (the ‘high school’ one) is two rows deep on the top two shelves. Thinly painted metal bookends try to contain the young-adult chaos from overspilling.

My college shelf continues on the legacy of trying to contain the chaos with thin chicken-College shelf with bodiless Chimmycoup wires ( a ‘steal’ from Homegoods is what my mom calls it). Some books I have yet to read, others are textbooks of semesters’ past, and I have a good stack of albums I regard with childhood remembrance to my latest Waterparks album with catchy and personally unrelatable tunes like “I Miss Having Sex But At Least I Don’t Want To Die (a hit radio-bleeped classic).

A further example of my love for music is displayed on the middle outward-facing encasement at the top is specifically saved for my collection of treasured BTS albums. The brave yellow-hooded BT21 character, Chimmy, is bodiless, but a good guard nonetheless.

Again, I organize by where everything can fit in a somewhat immaculate state. The position of honor for my most beloved books does not stay on the shelf. They float.

Since my freshman year in the cramped, yet warm space of my Hess Hall room is where this concept and artistic need initialized. Books and music are my ultimate loves even if I’m not an expert in creating either, I admire their mere creation.

close-up of floating books

The grayscale posters surround my favorite book series. Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne, is a series that shaped my interests in emotional and apocalyptic storytelling. The same descriptions apply to Issac Marion’s Warm Bodies. Zombies have been on my mind since my early middle-school-age fascination with “The Walking Dead.” As for a zombie who would learn love and understanding is the cure, I like to believe those words can cure all apocalypse epidemics (fictional and real as idealistic as it sounds).

Like my personality and appearance, my shelves have always been a semi-functioning mess with an element of chaotic good to keep things interesting—and on some appealing artistic level. Chimmy will remain guard with his fearsome tongue if anyone thinks they can touch my BTS albums without my permission.


Emma Hudson is currently a third year student at the University of Tennessee working on her double concentration BA in English: Rhetoric and Creative Writing, along with a minor in retail consumer science. She’s a busy bee; she is the Editor-in-Chief of the up-and-coming Honey Magazine. Emma is also a long-time member and leader in UTK’s Creative Writing Club and on the Executive Board for UTK’s Sigma Tau Delta, Alpha Epsilon chapter. In her free time, she figures out how to include K-Pop group BTS into her research projects and watches “reality” tv shows.

Project Bookshelf with Editorial Intern Peyton Vance

My bookcase is black wood, made to look smarter and sharper than it truly is. They say readers treat their books like they do their lovers. I hope that isn’t the case.

While some may highlight their favorite lines, dog-ear pages they reread, or annotate the work until it is a kaleidoscope of paper, I take a different approach.

 I slide off dust covers when reading, as to not damage the books. I do my best not to touch the pages, in fear of ruining the delicate paper with my oily hands. Don’t get me wrong, I do love books. Part of me wishes I could slide a novella in my bag, and read it on the beach, underlining sentences I wish I had come up with. But I’m not that brave. I’m not an Andy who plays with his toys. I’m Al, from Al’s Toybarn, keeping my toys behind a thin pane of glass.

From bottom to top, my bookcase is arranged strategically. Level one is the most haphazard, closest to the ground and least likely to be seen. This is where I keep “smart books”, year books, and paper books I collect coins in. The “smart books” are The Sun Also Rises, Frankenstein, The Grapes of Wrath, and other works that make me feel inferior. 

Above them, is the kid’s shelf, with books I love that are simple. I keep them knowing, hoping, that my kids will enjoy them too. 

Above that, on the third level is my YA section, with killing, love, and everything except sex. Level four is strictly reserved for Stephen King, on a life sentence.

The highest level is the Geek shelf. Where Watchman sits next to Fall of Reach, which sits next to Darth Plagueis… If this didn’t clue anyone in, then the massive Master Chief helmet I bought on eBay for much more than it was worth, will. 

It’s organized, but messy. The levels sit on top of one another with not one thread of cohesion. I’ve even got bastardized shelves around my room because I ran out of space.

Next to my bed, there’s the shelf that holds every Walking Dead volume, right beside my George R.R. Martin shelf with all five books, with one space left for another that may never come.

 I’m clearing off a space, now in my closet for future books to be read. And it’s growing slower than I want it, but faster than I know.

Peyton Vance is a senior at the University of Tennessee. He’s had five pieces published this year and is also currently the prose editor at the Phoenix Literary Magazine. He loves writing in any form whether it be poetry, prose, photos, plays or any other word that doesn’t start with a P. Peyton wants to eventually get into production and screenwriting and does not want to become homeless when he grows up. His favorite food is pizza.

Project Bookshelf: Megan McCarter

Megan Desk Bookshelf

I have always loved looking at other people’s bookshelves. Whether it be a small shelf over their desk or an expansive library spanning floor to ceiling if there is a bookshelf I am bound to be found snooping through its titles and well-loved spines. What better way to earn a glimpse of the person who collected these stories or find your next favorite?

My room has been overtaken by books barely constrained to the shelves they live on. The titles have shifted and changed over the years but the number has only grown. There is something about living physically among books that goes beyond mere aesthetics or a book as an object. It is about living among stories and words, little portals into faraway lands. As much as each book tells a story, so does each bookshelf that houses them.

Megan Tall Bookcase 2The story of my own bookshelves must be an odd one. I can count three different copies of Frankenstein, two of The Classic Fairytales, and three of The Arabian Nights. John Milton’s Paradise Lost is nestled next to a worn paperback of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. Collections of Sherlock Holmes sit beside Bruce Coville’s children’s series, the Unicorn Chronicles. There are at least eight copies of Shakespeare’s works, though I’ve probably missed a few among all the stacks. Never mind that shelves can begin with Christopher Paolini’s Eragon only to be interrupted by books on mummies and solitary confinement, poetry by Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, only to end up at Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. And all of this on one bookshelf alone!

Through these books I can trace the path of my life. Scattered on the shelves are my childhood favorites and heroes, like Bruce Coville and Tamora Pierce. On another bookcase are the collections of writing prompts, research ideas, and folktales that I fell in love with during high school. The brown shelf over my desk is laden with favorite authors and series I Megan Black Bookcasestill haven’t stopped rereading years after I first discovered them. I can mark the exact moment that I became an English major in the presence of Norton Critical Editions. Along the way, there are clusters that stand out with frightening titles like Buried Alive and Severed from a class I took on the Anthropology of Horror and what our fears say about our culture. Even the slew of children’s classics like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Tom Brown’s School Days remind me more of a pair of classes I took on children’s literature than they do of my own childhood.

Looking through all of these books, new and old, the ones that are missing stand out to me as well. On the middle shelf there used to be Erin Hunter’s Warriors series and my collection of Harry Potter books, both gifted years ago to my little sister when she began to read. The collection of my books waiting to be read barely fits on my black bookshelf, tucked under the Tamora Pierce books I have set aside to reread this summer in a book club of friends. No matter how my shelves shift and change with the years, I am proud of the story they tell and I can only look forward to what new adventures they will collect.

Megan Short Bookcase


Megan McCarter PictureMegan McCarter is a graduate of the University of Alabama with a BA in English. She is a founding editor of Call Me [Brackets] literary magazine and has presented her research at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association annual conference. You can find her in Tennessee playing with her pets, nose deep in folklore, or working on her latest story.

 

Project Bookshelf: Athena Lathos

Though I love the concept of Project Bookshelf, I am slightly embarrassed to share my own shelves with the internet. In a purely aspirational dimension of the universe, an ideal version of myself maintains a beautifully curated book collection, properly whittled down to only the most worthy titles and complete with the most aesthetically pleasing editions faced out for the benefit of my house guests.In fact, I recently saw an Instagram post from one of my favorite poets, Kaveh Akbar, in which he showed off his and his partner’s gorgeously lit, museum-like library, and I thought to myself yes, that is what I would like my books to look like. The key here, of course, is that they don’t. My partner and are I not a literary power couple, but a couple of twenty-somethings who just moved into a ramshackle house from the 1920s in semi-rural Oregon. And, admittedly, neither of us are particularly neat. Our books are cherished. But they are also scattered everywhere.

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You may see here that I’ve attempted to organize some childhood books, poetry collections, and nonfiction titles on the white bookshelves, along with my slightly embarrassing collection of Plath biographies (a teenage obsession that I know is considered a writer’s cliche). The other bookshelf, though, the light brown one, has a decidedly pragmatic function. It is protecting a mixture of my partner’s and my own books from moving- and construction-related damage. Look more closely, and you might see a fair amount of doubles in this mess of a library, an issue that was undoubtedly caused by two graduate students in English moving in together.

Once, while talking with my dad about getting rid of all of these extra copies of Walden and Leaves of Grass and To the Lighthouse, he looked at me with concern and said, “I don’t know, honey … are you sure you are ready for that?”I think my dad’s reaction is pretty indicative of my abiding love for these mostly beat-up tomes. Like many of us here at Sundress, my physical books tell stories other than the ones that they harbor inside them, and my humble library—though not so pretty to look at—is the most valuable feature of my home.

 

 

 

Athena Lathos is a poet and nonfiction writer from Santa Maria, California. She currently lives in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where she works part-time as a Student Accessibility Technician at Chemeketa Community College and part-time as a freelance writer and editor. Her work can be found in Enizagam and Verseweavers, as well as on her blog, Bertha Mason’s Attic. Her recent blog post about the job market, “I Applied to 200 Jobs and All I Got was this Moderate-Severe Depression,” was featured as an Editor’s Pick on Longreads. Lathos completed her MA thesis, “A Sea of Grief is Not a Proscenium: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and the Spectacle of Racist Violence in Cyberculture,” at Oregon State University’s School of Writing, Literature, and Film in May of 2017. Lathos was a finalist for the 2016 Princemere Poetry Prize.

 

Project Bookshelf: Danielle Alexander

 

The shelf came from my mother. It’s a heavy, sturdy piece, pulled from a dumpster in her retirement community. There are rings on all the shelves from the many glasses of Coke she set on it when she owned it.

The top shelf is home to vintage, hardcover books, as well as anything I’ve recently purchased and haven’t read yet. Half this shelf holds copies of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry. Since high school, Edna is the writer I always look for first in a used bookstore.

The second shelf has writing books on the left side of the basket. As you can see, I have a thing for spies and espionage. To the right of the basket are poetry books, plus a signed first edition of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River, which is the book I always tell people is my favorite when they ask. (When you have a used bookstore/online book business, people ask you this question a lot, and it’s a tricky one to answer.) Next to Bonnie Jo is a copy of Amy Hempel’s short stories. I always keep these two books together. I remember reading them the first time and thinking “Oh! I can write about my life! My redneck, northern Michigan, backwoods upbringing can be written about in a universal, literary way!” Whenever I’m stuck in my writing, I turn to these two books for inspiration.  

In the basket are all the zines, artists’ books, and chapbooks I’ve purchased over the last few years. I have so many favorites. Whenever people come over to my house, I pull the basket out to show them.

The third shelf from the top holds my Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings books, as well as a few nonfiction books I’m fond of. There is a Harry Potter snow globe I got when I was eleven, featuring Harry catching the golden snitch. The shelf below is a mix of contemporary fiction and nonfiction, as well as all my Jane Austen books. You could say I have a thing for Jane – my cats are named Jane and Austen.

The shelf second from the bottom holds the heavy art books and more vintage hardcovers. The bottom shelf is a mess of kid’s books, both vintage and contemporary, for when my friend’s kids come over.

My mother passed the shelf on to me when I opened a used bookstore a few years ago. In the bookstore, the shelf held all the poetry books. It sat by the front window and had a gorgeous philodendron on top; easily my favorite shelf in the shop. Now, it sits next to my favorite window in my house, and holds the books I love the most.

There is something magical about keeping all your favorite books together, a little out of order, placing them by how they feel, how they connect to the books next to them.

How do you shelf your books? Tell me in the comments below!

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Danielle Alexander is a writer and the owner of Grey Grey Books, an online and pop-up shop that sells used books, zines, and handmade journals in Michigan. Her writing has appeared in The Bandit Zine’s Love & Heartbreak Issue and The Aquinas College Sampler, where her poem “Mother” received an American Academy of Poet’s Honorable Mention. She has self-published two poetry chapbooks—Sunlight Gets Through (2016) and Chasing Rabbits (2016); two collaborative artist’s books, We Sit Together, At the Table (2015) and White Walls: Entelechia (2015); and recently self-published Ten Lists: A Workbook for Anxiety (2017). Danielle holds a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in English and Creative Writing from Aquinas College and will be pursuing an MFA in Nonfiction or Poetry in 2018. Her work can be found at reygreybooks.com.

Project Bookshelf: Kristen Figgins

Books pile everywhere in my house.  My husband and I are both voracious reader who are always saying, “I really shouldn’t” while at the check-out line at a bookstore.

Below is the bookshelf in our living room, what I think of as the NEAT bookshelf, because it’s full of things that we saw that were too NEAT not to buy, like a coffee table book about the circus.

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And these are the bookshelves that sit in the guest room, the books that live in and around my heart, the books that I read for fun, for classes, books that I read until their spines were falling apart and books that I read once.  I love these messy, lived-in shelves.

When we got married, we spent our wedding gift cards on the bookshelf below, which we spent three days putting together in our living room while watching documentaries about magicians.  This shelf is my favorite for a few reasons.  First, because it holds my favorite books: the collectibles, the beauties, the ones that we both need close at hand on a rainy day.  And second because it represents my husband’s and my collaborative effort to build a home of books; this bookshelf represents the culmination of a dream: the presence of a bookshelf in every room of our house.  It’s a meeting place of our minds and hearts and imaginations, and I love it.

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Kristen Figgins is a writer of fabulism, whose work has appeared in such places as The Gateway Review, Sleet Magazine, Hermeneutic Chaos, Sakura Review, Menacing Hedge, and more. Her story “Track Me With Your Words, Speak Me With Your Feet” was winner of the 2015 Fiction Award from Puerto del Sol, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Micro Award, and Write Well Award. Her first chapbook, A Narrow Line of Light, is available for purchase from Boneset Books and her novella, Nesting, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications in the Summer of 2017.