Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bookshelves, by Sonia Erlich

Saturday mornings. Beyond the bounds of the weekday schedule, outside of Outlook calendars and school bells, no thought yet of Sunday evening’s bookend. What to do with all of these unclaimed moments?

As a child, many of those mornings were spent re-ordering my bedroom. This involved, among other things, removing all of my books from the shelves, taking stock of each one individually, and determining its proper pile on the floor. This drive did not stem from an idea of what I “should” be doing; rather it seemed to me that this is what you do in life: you engage, you tend to your environment, you envision something and draw it into being.

My father would pass in the hallway, then double back to my open doorway and peer in. “You’ve been at it for two hours,” he would say, scanning the mounting chaos on the floor, “and somehow it looks worse than when you started.”

“It’ll be clean,” I would tell him with absolute conviction.

The best part about clearing off the shelves was the chance to hold each book in my hands again. And sometimes, holding would lead to opening, and opening would lead to reading, and before I knew it, the sun would shift across the sky, and I would be called for dinner. Like the earlier part of that Saturday, Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary knew no time limits.

As I got older, I moved around quite a bit. Different states, different bedrooms, different bookshelves. In Washington, D.C., it was a rickety, rusty, three-tiered thing on wheels. Thank goodness for the Salinger, Orwell, and Plath that held it in place. In Utah, they were old milk crates, and the various colored plastics provided an excuse to create categories (Existentialists, Multicultural, Mythology, Books that Shaped Me, et al). Houseguests who took time with the collection renewed my appreciation for the books. Walker, Camus, Tolstoy. My bookshelves could speak for me in a way that I could not, something like, “I am the sum of these parts”.

Now I live in the city where I started. I don’t know if I’ll stay forever, but I know that when I moved back, four years ago, I didn’t want to worry about nailing plywood into someone else’s wall. For all the road trips and climate changes they had endured, my books deserved some stability.

So, once again, I took to the bookshelves, only this time, I had thick planks of stained pine, inherited from my grandfather, to fill. I sorted through the milk crates (they doubled nicely as storage containers), created categories and piles, reassessed the categories and piles, and eventually, assigned a place on the shelves to each book.

I love the way bookshelves communicate for me and the way the shelves of others speak for them. Beyond the sum of their parts, our collections reflect our values, our phases, our influences, our pursuits and passions. They are worth an intimate look, a hold, and the devotion of an entire Saturday. 

Sonia Erlich is a graduate of Lesley University's MFA program. 


  1. Love this: "you engage, you tend to your environment, you envision something and draw it into being." Certainly room for reflection!

  2. Great article. I, too, took some Saturday's to redo my room, empty every shelf, the closet, etc. Mom said it looked like a tornado had hit. But when done, I had touched everything, knew where everything was, and my world was once again organized.