Friday, 5 December 2014

No bookshelf is an island

An uncomfortable number of years ago, during my 8th grade Industrial Arts class, obsessed with books and temporarily unable to appreciate the utilitarian beauty of wooden bowls (and maybe a little bit afraid of the lathe), I set out to make my own bookshelf. My dad picked up the wood for me from Home Depot and dropped it off at my classroom. I may have had design ambitions when I started out, but what I eventually built was the most basic bookshelf you've ever seen: three shelves, more or less evenly spaced, no frills. I got an A, and when it was done I brought it home, painted it a sort of eggshell ivory colour, and filled it with books.

I've since dragged it around with me a fair bit, although most of my apartments have been too small to accommodate it, or too far away to deliver it. I painted it brown. It sat in my parents' basement waiting for me, collecting dust. Last year, when I moved back to Toronto as a permanent resident, my bookshelf came with me. In my initial burst of homemaking enthusiasm, I repainted it a lovely, almost French shade of blue and loaded it up with as many books as would fit.

I have always been proud of my bookshelf and have always humble-bragged that I built it when I was thirteen. But that is not entirely true.

I didn't build it entirely by myself. I constructed the outer frame and was preparing to take on the shelves. I was intimidated by the next step. What if I nailed the shelves in crookedly? What if I couldn't line them up exactly evenly to make all three shelves the same height? What if--gasp--I didn't get an A?? I left class one day fretting about these issues, silently wishing for some helpful magic elves to sort things out.

When I arrived for my next class, the shelves were nailed in and perfectly straight.

I was a little relieved. I had dreaded the difficulty of putting in those shelves and suddenly all the stress and worry was gone. It was just done for me. I had my bookcase, I had my A.

But much as I love it, every time I look at the bookshelf I think about the fact that I didn't build it by myself. I still wonder why my teacher intervened. Did he see I was nervous about it? Did he get bored one day or, alternatively, a little too excited about my project (real furniture, rather than another silly bowl)? Or did he simply think I couldn't do it myself?

It's true I'm no great woodworker--although I did once intern for Fine Woodworking magazine--but the memory of making my bookshelf always makes me feel a little deflated. The first of many stops and starts in my literary life, the first (but not the last) ambitious project I dreamed up and never fully executed.

And yet, I have a bookshelf, a sturdy one that has lasted me nearly twenty years with no signs of wear.

Could I have built it myself? Would I have learned something through the effort that would have stayed with me?

Maybe. My bookshelf has always been a little haunted by the wondering.

But maybe it's time for an exorcism. Maybe it's time to think about the bookshelf not as a symbol of my shabby follow-through, but as a reminder that you don't always need to do everything by yourself, and you can build something stronger with a little help from someone who knows what they're doing.


  1. This post is so weird and wonderful. It also contains the sentence, "It's true I'm no great woodworker--although I did once intern for Fine Woodworking magazine..." There is a certain singularity to your work that I'm in love with. I do hope that you'll be able to blog like no one is reading even while knowing that I am.

  2. OMG I love this post Sara. It reminds me of so many things I've kept around, despite the fact (or more likely because) they reminded me of failure. An expensive pot my parents gave me comes to mind. I kept it for years after I ruined it by letting it boil dry. And there was a half-sized bottle of champagne that a girlfriend once gave me. It stayed in my fridge for over two years and each time I saw it there I felt it was mocking me. The "special occasion" my friend thought I might use it to celebrate (ie first intimate relations with the man I was dating) never materialized (he broke up with me instead). I felt so relieved when I finally got rid of both of them. The stories we tell about the objects around us are so powerful, they shape how we think of ourselves. Sounds like an excellent time to come up with a new story about the bookshelf!

  3. I believe in elves...and I loved this post, too, Sara.