A Shelf of One’s Own

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Recently, a vivid memory bubbled up from when I was about 9. It was lunchtime and I’d retreated to the school library to escape a classroom full of giggles and heads colliding with footballs. I was sitting cross-legged facing my favorite shelf, where the tops of the spines formed a sliver of rainbow.

The Eyewitness books were a series of a hundred or so bite-sized encyclopedias—definitive guides to everything kid-imaginable. They came in number order, each with a hard cover and thick squeaky pages splashed with photos, drawings, and facts. Space, Archaeology, The Renaissance, Dog, Weather, Robot, Ancient Greece, Shakespeare. I stepped into them, and time disappeared.

It offended my 9-year-old sensibilities deeply whenever the numbers and colors were jumbled out of order on the shelf. So, I soon developed a daily routine: After poking my fork at the questionable french offerings in the dining hall, I’d drag my dyslexic best friend to the library (she was in it for the pictures) and we’d plop down on the beige carpet, putting the books in piles, reordering, until everything was in its place.

The only exceptions to this system were, of course, my favorites—Horse and Cat—which I hid on an obscure shelf. I couldn’t stand the idea of careless hands crumpling or staining them. Once a control freak, always a control freak.

I’ve been trying to figure out why this scene popped up from my mental recesses now, for the first time ever. Maybe it’s because I’ve been making an effort to meditate more—giving my mind space from planning and rumination has released old associations. Memories are notoriously unreliable fragments, but this one feels like a signpost from the past.

I’m unsure of my relationship to ideas. I’ve spent time among journalists and writers who spend their days talking to others, scouring the internet, and crafting beautiful sentences from the notions they pluck from tweets, conversations, and stray thoughts. I’ve spent time among psychologists and neuroscientists committed to the slow, cautious slog of evaluating theories using measurements and models. Which of these options suits me best—curator, constructor, consumer or creator?

Maybe I should trust my instincts that came long before I learned about PhDs and book deals and salaries and self-doubt. Those Eyewitness books drew me in at age 9 because they were beautiful and taught me things that seemed true. (I’ve yet to reevaluate each of their claims, but I like to hope that they summarized some of the most well-established findings from each of the fields.) And though the whole world of ideas was packed onto a single library shelf, I could bite off one piece at at time, at my own pace.

When I moved to a new house in D.C. earlier this summer, I realized just how many books I’ve accumulated—magazine offices are essentially dispensaries for addicts. An old bookshelf was sitting unused in the hallway, so I wiped off the dust and hefted it up to my room. I now have the beginnings of my own encyclopedic rainbow, of psychology and essay and fiction and philosophy and buddhism and children’s books and biology. It’s less perfectly organized than my 9-year-old self would tolerate, but at least I don’t have to worry about grubby fingers.

Sometimes, I cross my legs, face the shelves, and time disappears again.

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