Sunday, January 29, 2012

Nathan Tavares's Bookshelf

I’ve lived in a handful of rooms. The room in the house that I grew up in. A few college dorms. The drafty apartment in Providence that I moved to, after college. In all of these rooms, I proudly displayed my books. In bookshelves, plastic milk crates, and in piles on the floor. Goosebumps and Christopher Pike novels from when I was a kid. College textbooks, and classics I kept promising myself I would read. I lugged boxes of books wherever I went.

I approached my latest cross-state move with attempted Zen. The eyes-closed, deep-breath calm that I try to force on myself when I’m facing something out of my comfort zone.  I’m not my possessions, I repeated to myself. I sat down in my old apartment, in the spare room that had become a shrine to clutter. I sat down with trash bags, recycling bins, and boxes for books. And started to downsize.

There’s something freeing about getting rid of things that you convinced yourself were so worthwhile. Stacks of old magazines. SAT score sheets from high school. Old notebooks. College essays. I don’t know. Maybe I held on to these things for so long so I could read them, years from now, and think about how smart I’d been. I kept the important stuff. Everything else went.

The books were the hardest to get rid of. I flipped through dog-eared pages. Ran my fingers down worn spines. I kept some, but got rid of most. I brought books to the second-hand bookstore down the street. Gave books to my friends, telling them to read them and love them as much as I had. It was unburdening, even fun. I packed my life into boxes, lighter, now—and moved.  

My bookshelf in my new place is functional. A five-by-five grid that splits my living room in half. Sectioning off my writing space from the rest of the house. A sturdy bookshelf that’s nothing like my old plastic milk crates and chipping, fiberboard bookshelves. My books are clumped together in color-coded blocks. My bookshelf is more about interior design than hoarding instincts to keep every book I’ve ever loved. 

I made a home on my new bookshelf for the books I couldn’t part with. Books I loved so much, that they made me cover of the final lines of the last page, so my greedy eyes wouldn’t skip down. Books that I finished, and then immediately started again—because they were that good. The ones that I put down, moved, but also jealous, because I hadn’t written them. Gaiman, Atwood, Saunders, my giant Bulfinch’s Mythology, my worn copy of Catcher in the Rye. My Vonnegut books, including Galapagos, which my dad gave to me after he had read it—passages starred and underlined, his neat handwriting in the margins.

I’m not my possessions, I’ll still say, as I try to whittle down the things in my life to just the essentials. Sometimes, more successfully than others. Either way, these particular books on my bookshelf aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.   

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Nathan Tavares is a graduate of Lesley University's MFA in Creative Writing. When he's not writing, he enjoys traveling, photography, and hours-long Wikipedia benders. He likes to write about benevolent frauds, love, and the end of the world. You can find more of his stuff at nathantavares.com.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Brian S. Hart's Bookshelf


My mother, Alice, is a retired librarian and my late father, John, was an English professor and Shakespearean scholar. It’s fair to say that reading was highly prioritized in my family—which actually got a boost from my father’s father, who worked every day of his adult life on a drawbridge on the Quinnipiac River in Connecticut. My grandfather, Peter—who died before I was born—saw reading, learning, and education for his sons—his only daughter spent her life institutionalized—as a huge priority in life.

My father, unusual, I think, for his profession, rarely talked much at home about his work teaching English, which he did for forty-eight years at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. He was much more comfortable chatting with his sons about the Pittsburgh Pirates or bridge hands or local news. He was usually interested in talking about what my brothers or I were doing rather than in his work. He was, as I perceived him, a very non-judgmental person. Part of being human—what we like to share with others—often involves trying (sometimes with little success) to sway those around us toward this direction or that, but that was not his way at all. He genuinely enjoyed and loved people as they were, without criticism or reserve. Whatever I got out of him from his experiences with literature was more often than not by way of prodding.

My father thought that the Shakespearean sonnets were the greatest pieces of English literature ever conceived. He loved Hamlet and thought it was probably Shakespeare’s greatest play. But he also thought King Lear was its equal. He thought Dostoevsky was the greatest novelist who ever lived. As a child, I can remember novels like The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot lying on the couch or piano bench—afraid to even touch them. Even to this day it is difficult for me to pick up a novel by Dostoevsky without feeling some sense of awe and trepidation. Maybe that’s irrational for an adult. I’m not really sure.

The best novel, my father ventured to say, was Ulysses by James Joyce. I don’t know why that surprised me. Over the years he had read and taught volumes of complicated and high-level literature, and I wondered why he singled this one particular item out. Maybe it was the Irish in my father—I can’t say for sure—but he conveyed to me that it was the one literary accomplishment that he couldn’t figure out how the author (Joyce) did it. That stuck with me over the years. It caused me—unconsciously, perhaps—to join a Ulysses reading group years later to try to understand and to enjoy on a minimal basis Joyce’s enigmatic novel.

My own background is in mathematics and physics and I have been interested in puzzle forms in my own writing. That is something I like to search out and explore. I think it is still a wide-open area for fiction writers.
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Brian S. Hart is a first time author with a background in physics. He has a Master’s Degree in Education from Westfield State College and is a teacher in multi-cultural education. He is interested in mathematical structures and puzzle forms within experimental writing.