a neverending bookshelf

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. My idea of a beautiful life means one where work mostly means reading and writing and working with my hands. That’s my tiny pipe dream, reading and writing with some theater and babies thrown in the mix, walks in the woods or in the city, knitting and quilting, slow mornings with fresh cream biscuits and coffee, heartbreak too. It’s the life I’m bashfully and tentatively trying to build, brick by brick, bird by bird, murmuring, “maybe, maybe, maybe.”

I will always be a person who reads books, whether my life makes glorious space for them or not. I was raised as a library girl, which I have to remember to thank my mother for. We only bought a book when we really, really wanted it. We mostly borrowed. We were master borrowers, really. I would spend long afternoons perusing the shelves, carefully not to miss any books as I scanned the spines, afraid I would miss a gem. If I came across a book I had read and liked, I would pull it out, give its pages a loving flip, remember it tactilely. I still like to do that, visit books I’ve read before in the library, tell them I remember. We would trundle home with old blue plastic grocery bags full of new books, straining under the weight. I would look at my picks on the ride home, deciding what to open first, reading the summaries, holding them in my lap. Our house was full of library books, stacks and stacks of them all over the place, renewed as many times as possible, often accumulating fines. My neverending bookshelf, what wasn’t readily available I could request, and renew, renew, renew.

I still dream a little of being a librarian. As a kid, it seemed like the most noble thing for a woman to do. I still think about it sometimes, even though I know that working at a library is mostly customer service and not as many hours reading and conducting storytimes with children as I thought as a kid.

My book stack stays high these days. When I subtract, I add more. I read three books at once sometimes, unable to resist the urge to start a new book even when I was still enjoying an old one. I have books I specifically save for later, but when? It’s almost anxiety-inducing, how quickly I want to devour literature. Virginia Woolf, Annie Dillard, Lorrie Moore, Flannery O’Connor, I want all of them all at once. But one at a time, one at a time (or two or three, when I just can’t help it.)

[An afterthought: I’m reading three books at once right now, and it seems to me that there is almost a fourth book forming in my mind, being forged as I read. Ideas from all three books interplaying into something new, being set into a conversation that expands them a bit, just by my arbitrarily picking them up and putting them down. Kind of wonderful when I think about it. But also mind-boggling. How books interact with the things already in our brains. How my experience of a particular book can’t be anything like someone else’s because we all have different stuff to sort the information into, to compare it to, to filter it. How marvelous. How strange.]

Sometimes I read a book because I feel like I’m supposed to. Sometimes I start a book I thought I wouldn’t like and fall into it like quicksand. Sometimes I truly enjoy a book but inexplicably stop when I have just shy of three chapters left, unable to go on. Sometimes I get a book that I’m excited to read, but then it just stays on my stack, untouched. Some books I wish I could read over and over and over, and some books feel best left to one reading. Some books I want to underline nearly every line I read, save everything for reference later, later. Some books I wish I could download into my brain. Some poems leap and bound off of the page and into my heart and some feel utterly limp, unreadable no matter how hard I try. I love the variousness of it, the way you never really know what will make it down all the twists and turns and shady corridors all the way to your heart. You can assume, but you can’t know until you’re breathlessly reading, until you’re cancelling plans, until you’re no longer distracted by instagram, until you’re carrying it around with you in your back, safe, a constant companion.

This post is the beginning of a new part of this little blog. At the top of the webpage, you’ll see a new tab called “Neverending Bookshelf.” I’ll update this space often with what I’m reading, what I’m dying to read, what I loved the most. Because reading is a part of my life that is only just growing, an endless endeavor. I may also post small reviews in that space, as well, and other book-related thoughts. It’s like the syllabus for the college class I’ll never get to teach. Who knows. For now, friends, the start to the Red Speckled White Required Reading List. I’ll be brief and selective, I promise. Starting here, starting now.

What I’m reading right this second:

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennet. (A bright spot of a book, brilliant, and the sort of thing I’d only dream of writing someday. I’ve been reading it in short spurts, and I don’t know exactly why. I guess that’s just the flavor of it for me. Nice to prolong it by taking it in slowly. Read before bed with Isaiah breathing steadily, slowly beside me.)

Bluets by Maggie Nelson. (Read with a morning draft latte at La Colombe, making me see the blues everywhere, making me think differently, new.)

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle. (Read mostly in the bath and on the couch so far, with words filling me up, the sort of wisdom I seek from a mentor, the things I actually, actually need to hear. )


What’s up next (aka, on order from the library):

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

Little Labors by Rivka Galchen.

My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman.

The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple. 


Someday, soon:

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather.

To the Lighthouse by Virgina Woolf. 

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. 

All time favorites (the ones I keep by my bed, because they should never be too far):

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. (The ultimate coming of age novel. Every woman should read this.)

Angels in America by Tony Kushner. (This play changed my heart and life in many ways, big and small.)

Two-Part Invention by Madeleine L’Engle. (My first gentle entry into her non-fiction, read while in love with the boy I would soon marry.)

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. (A nearly perfect novel, one I love very, very much.)

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. (When I read Franny, I see myself dancing frantically on the page.)

An American Childhood by Annie Dillard. (A childhood in Pittsburgh, so deeply personal. Nonfiction at its best.)

Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard. (Some of the best writing on faith I’ve read.)

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton. (Illustration and personal narrative, perfectly and creatively meshed. I want to write a book like this someday.

Anagrams by Lorrie Moore. (My favorite contemporary novel, hands down.)


Books I want to buy because I liked them so much:

Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. 

The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits.

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti. 


Books that I like a lot and want to return to often:

Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist.

Cannery Row & Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. 

Women in Clothes by Leanne Shapton, Heidi Julavits, and Sheila Heti. 

Collected Stories by Lorrie Moore. 


Books that were just okay for me, but maybe you’ll really like them:

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler


2 thoughts on “a neverending bookshelf

  1. I too have a never ending bookshelf, which i both love and am scared by! This post is getting saved to my “books to read list”, thank you.


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