Project Bookshelf with Editorial Intern: Natalie Metropulos

If I lived alone, I would forfeit at least two feet of living space in each room to bookcases – great big floor-to-ceiling tallboys, organized by author, genre, perhaps even book jacket color. I’d have a wooden rolling ladder to reach the topmost shelves and would probably spend a good bit of time perched on it, having lost myself in a book and forgotten to descend fully. But … I married a non-reader. Oh boy. Saying that to a literary community almost feels like admitting failure. I imagine you asking, “how did she get here?”

Seriously, where did I go wrong?

My husband, Mark, has read three books; the first was a baby shower gift from his childhood friend’s wife, and I purchased the other two. Mark’s complete collection comprises The Caveman’s Pregnancy Companion: a Survival Guide for Expectant Fathers, Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know, and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. That last one was a gift from Santa after a screamingly silent year. You can safely assume that nobody describes me as reticent.

The only explanation I have for marrying a man who seriously dislikes reading is our extremely short and intense courtship. We met Labor Day weekend of 2005 at a mutual friend’s party. There was a shot ice luge and lots of kissing. We were both in our late twenties. We knew right away.

On December 26, 2005, when the morning light had yet to dilute the blackness outside his townhouse window, Mark proposed. We married the following August. I guess it’s time I admit that during those eleven months – when I was reading little other than legal textbooks for night school and court records for my day job – I failed to talk books with my husband-to-be and ultimately tethered myself for life to a reading-averse man.

To correct this imbalance in my universe, I chose a fellow bibliophile for a best friend. Nina buys me books for every birthday and freely loans me her ever-expanding collection of narrative nonfiction. She’s critically essential to the continued success of my marriage.

I’m also fostering a love of reading in my three children.

Instead of the tall bookshelves I covet, we have a few standard bookcases and cubby-style pieces that multi-task as trophy, picture, game, and toy display cases. We also have book stacks, book piles, book bins. I find books in my children’s beds, books in the bathroom, books in the pockets behind the car seats, and books in the car doors. Despite my husband’s genes, our kids are bookish. If an interior wall ever crumbles in our house, I am confident my kids and I could rebuild it with our books.  

As our county began reopening businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, my first retail trip was to our beloved local bookshop, Riverstone Books. The kids and I donned our pleated cloth masks, wiggled our fingers into the plastic gloves Riverstone provided, and dispersed like Dandelion seeds in the breeze. Beforehand, I had told my kids they could each buy one book; if memory serves, we left with at least eight. I could never say no to books.

A couple of weeks later, when our local library began offering book pickup, I placed a sizable order that included fiction, nonfiction, and poetry books for my kids, and The Call of the Wild for me to read to them. I showed up a day early for my scheduled pickup time, even though we all had several books in our reading queues and wouldn’t get to the library books for a few more days.

Thanks to Riverstone, the library, and additional books on loan from friends, we have more than enough books to last us through the end of summer. Still, my seven-year-old has already asked me when we can place another library order, and I will continue to purchase and borrow books at a faster rate than we can read them. I like how they look in my house – the amalgamation of bought and borrowed books against the spaces were loaned out books belong – and the promise of escaping to the worlds inside of them. I like the stories my bookshelves tell about my family and me.

My cookbook shelf is an exposé. It reveals how eating a healthy diet to fuel my physical activities comes between me and my first love: baking. It shows that my family loves ethnic foods and is devoted to the Food Network. It provides a history of me showing others how much I value them through food, since I’m not the best at vocalizing feelings of love. Oatmeal Chocolate Chip cookies for my husband and Coconut Crème pie for my dad this past Father’s Day. My sister’s wedding cake. Iced cut-outs to mark every new school year and Christmas. It reminds me of the simple concoctions prepared by my daughter’s preschool cooking class, and the love and skill that the women in my family and my husband’s family pour into every meal.

Other shelves reveal my struggle with religion and remind me of my wavering atheism when floundering in the aftermath of my father-in-law’s death. For weeks, it felt like the universe had a tear. Nothing seemed solid or real. I’m still very much open to suggestions on the meaning of this life and whether it’s the only one we have. I hope it isn’t. I fear it is.

I consider my children’s love of reading to be one of the greatest gifts I could have given them. Books have gotten us through some challenging conversations and have taken us on journeys to faraway places during this time when actual distant adventures are discouraged or impossible. Plus, when they grow up and have homes of their own, I know they’ll stuff them with bookshelves, book stacks, book piles, and book bins. I can’t wait to borrow from them.

Natalie Metropulos is working concurrently on a middle-grade fiction chapter book and a nonfiction picture book series about wildlife photography. She holds a B.A. in English from the Pennsylvania State University and a JD from Duquesne University and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. Although it has been some time since her writing has appeared outside of a legal document, Metropulos has been published (nee Natalie Rieland) in Kalliope, Research/Penn State Magazine, and Pitt.