I’m a terrible carpenter, but I believe in building bookcases. Even if I crush my thumb with the hammer in the process, it’s absolutely worth it. Books are everything to me. The daughter of two writers, I myself am a college English teacher, a book review editor, and someone struggling to write my own first book. Call me crazy, but I think my books are happier when they’re housed in homemade shelves.
When we love our books, our books love us back. My father, a master carpenter and longtime “New York Times” reporter, used to construct floor-to-ceiling bookcases in what seemed like a blink of the eye. We moved frequently for my dad’s work, living in close to a dozen homes in three East Coast cities. But my dad put up bookcases everywhere, and everywhere felt like home.
When it was time for me to leave for college, my dad wanted me to bring along a piece of home. “Let’s build a bookcase,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be boxy and boring. It can have personality.” And that’s how I came to build a bookcase that zigzags across the wall like a bolt of lightning. This slanting parallelogram, such a jaunty bookcase,
might have helped me crawl through all 3,000 pages of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.”
The lightning-bolt bookcase also houses books by writers I studied with in college and graduate school. On its shelves, you’ll find “Arrows of Rain,” by Nigerian novelist Okey Ndibe, who let me glimpse an early draft of this book when he taught me freshman year. Next, you’ll find “A Feather on the Breath of God,” by Sigrid Nunez, my senior year professor at Smith College, with whom I’ve enjoyed staying in touch with for seven years. You’ll also find a well-worn copy of “A Home at the End of the World” by Michael Cunningham, the director of my graduate program. Another grad professor, Amy Bloom, signed her novel “Come to Me” with the note: “To Jess, with appreciation and expectation.” Sometimes I run my hands across these books’ spines for luck before I begin a day of writing.
My lightning-bolt bookcase also holds “In a Family Way,” a parenting memoir written by my parents. (This one brings me awfully close to home!) Another important book on the shelf is a primer on Islam—the last book my father wrote before he died, too soon, at age 58.
Other cherished books, by Woolf, Whitman and Joyce, rest on six other unusually shaped shelves, which I was lucky enough to find on the street. These shelves are anything but square; their organically curving and flowing shapes remind me of clouds. Once I got the shelves home, I painted them a pearly white, and scattered them high and low across my blue walls, like so many clouds in the sky.
Books are my heaven. So I give them the best homes I can. When we give books special places on our walls, we honor their place in our hearts.
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