Each time I moved, the boxes of books marked “study” grew larger and heavier. They were stacked full of academic books to match the academic life I thought belonged to me. Two years spent earning a master’s degree, four years getting a PhD, and then another five after that teaching college. I spent as much time oogling the tall shelves wedged tight with books in my various advisors’ offices as I did absorbing their mentoring. I never had the swanky campus office digs with the towering bookcases, but wherever I moved I always had some form of a study with at least two or three cheap bookcases to house my treasured volumes.
I stuffed those shelves with books stamped with pretentiously long titles, the ones that read like terrible slam poetry: Dark Rising In Elsinore: Hamlet’s Ethical Journey. There were books from academics I met and admired (some we worshipped as if they were the Page and Plant of the discipline), books written by professors I had studied with, and books that carried me through years of teaching and research. Those were the ones marked up with tiny, multi-colored stickers, the small flags I planted marking my conquests over theories and ideas.
All of my books are sacred objects. Some are literal artifacts of where I’ve been—the slim book of poetry by Glen Cavillaro, a British professor and writer I studied with during a summer abroad program in Cambridge England before my senior year in college, the requisite edition of Ginsberg’s Howl bought at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, my kicked around copy of Thoreau’s Walden from the same nature preserve made famous in his writings. Other books I plainly and unapologetically covet as a writer and a thirty reader. It fills me with joy and awe that people in the world exist who knit together words in such astounding ways that rearrange molecules, change worlds, and leave you wrung out, forever transformed.
Seriously. When you get good book, you never go back.
That academic life stopped being mine a while ago, but the books remained on the shelves. It was if they were waiting for me to pick back up where I left off, to start caring deeply about things like semiotics and the phenomenology of modern theatre—yeah, that is totally a thing. It was as if I expected to collect that old life from the curb where it had deposited me. A lot of heart, sweat, and grit had gone into forging that identity. Wasn’t that worth something? There was a lot of sacrifice, more than I’d like to admit. A lot of people poured themselves into my academic career and didn’t I owe them? These were the things I wondered from time to time as I surveyed the books that used to speak to me, but now seemed like they were written in the language of an intergalactic nation.
And that’s when I realized the shelves had become a shrine to a life that I never really wanted, to someone else’s version of me that I willingly helped to create, to an image of myself that was never going to materialize no matter how much work and sacrifice, no matter how many volumes swimming in endnote and indexes crammed themselves onto my bookcases. Dress for the part you want, as the saying goes. To that I would add be judicious of the props you pick, they have a way of making their own bold statements.
This fall I felt the itch to freshen up my study, and I knew exactly where I wanted to start. I filled bins full of thick, serious texts, picking through them to box up ones that had sentimental value, and unceremoniously dumping the rest into the recycling bin. It felt like shedding a skin I wasn’t even conscious of wearing. It felt like setting a secret free. It felt like leaving one of those relationships that involved a lot of making room for his Rush albums while your catalogs of Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder sat idling in the spare bedroom.
When I was finished the air in the room took on the same light sweetness that it does during the first weeks of spring when all the windows are open to the new, green world. Each time I entered it was as if I had just moved in. I almost didn’t want to disturb the blank space on the shelf, the brief real estate full of possibility.
But I knew a wrong choice wasn’t possible. This time I was choosing the real me.