Today’s backdrop is a tableau of procrastination: a half-full bookshelf and six half-empty moving boxes. The closet and kitchen are long since unpacked, and I’ve already manipulated furniture into vaguely-functional positions. But my bookshelf didn’t arrive until last weekend.

I’ve rearranged and re-alphabetized so many times over the last five years—dorm to duplex, duplex to house, house to apartment, apartment to different apartment. But this time the collection feels more complete than it has been since I entered college.

For years, I’ve maintained two bookshelves: the one with me in Michigan, and the one at home in Iowa. Every break, I’d steal a book or two from the Iowa collection. Fragile Things to re-read over interim. Charlotte’s Web to use for a course. East to loan to a friend.

But there were always books I never quite had room for, childhood or teenage favorites I couldn’t find a way to squeeze into the rows. This is, for example, the first time in years I’ve housed all seven Harry Potter books on the same shelf. (Six books and a placeholder, actually. My sister loaned out Sorcerer’s Stone, and I only have its lonely-looking dust jacket.) Before my first year at Calvin, I packed Goblet of Fire and left the others in Iowa.

Abby’s October post depicted her books sniping at one another, chattering and babbling as authors are prone to do. I love imagining my books interacting — oh, Charlotte Brontë would hate her proximity to Austen — but I find my past selves make even stranger neighbors than Steinbeck and Tartt.

My books remember schedules that have stopped, obsessions that have dimmed, budgets and habits that have little to do with the person arranging spines today. Each title is an era trapped in amber, a fossil record of a former self.

A nervous nine-year-old, trying to imagine life in California after six years in Iowa, unwrapped a box set of her favorite fantasy series in a Salt Lake City hotel. As she started at a new school and attempted to find friend, she clung to the familiar stories and shelved the Chronicles of Narnia under Lewis, C.S.

A gangly teenager, enjoying the fruits of her first job, discovered a used copy of a book she had checked out four times from the library. She carried home her prize and shelved Song of the Sparrow under Sandell, Lisa.

A college sophomore, working a long summer of retail, slid a library book into her lunch bag and discovered the tragic effects of tea on ink. After awkwardly confessing the crime and paying the replacement fee, she shelved the newly blow-dried copy of Wonder under Palacio, R.J.

Most of the items I chose as a child or teenager have since been tossed or donated: the toys, the outfits, the decorations. But the ones I kept don’t typically live alongside my current clothes or decor or entertainment. They stay in their own section, a specially-dedicated box marked keep forever.

But as I rearrange my shelves, I place evidence of my former selves next to the novel I picked up on Friday. Books occupy an odd space between sentimental and practical: they remember their first reading, but that need not be their last.

 

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