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.