Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The story of a library

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Over the years, my life has evolved in surprising ways, but one constant has always been the lack of shelf space. Even when I was growing up, books tended to accumulate in strange places, and nearly all of my shelves were stacked two books deep. (I inherited this tendency from my parents, who I’m convinced moved countless boxes of books from one house to another without unpacking them for at least twenty years.) College was even worse, with the single bookcase allotted to each dorm room barely covering my required reading, much less the countless other volumes I picked up at used bookshops and thrift stores along the way. And the ensuing series of fairly small New York apartments didn’t leave me a lot of space, either. As a result, I’ve spent most of the last fifteen years fighting a losing war between the physical amount of shelving available and my own acquisitive nature.

Things took a turn for the better last fall, when my wife and I moved to Oak Park. After years of renting, we finally owned a house of our own, which meant I could start to think seriously about building a permanent home library—and I’d have an entire room for my office and study. Almost from the day we moved in, then, I was dreaming of a workspace filled, gloriously, with bookshelves. This had to wait for almost six months, however, as other home improvement projects took priority—sanding floors, replastering walls, repainting the dining room and kitchen—and as travel and other obligations ate up much of our time. As a result, the library remained a gleam in the eye, even as my books ended up stacked in toppling ziggurats, swallowing up much of the floor and making it all but impossible to find any particular title when I needed it.

At last, however, the moment came. And I’m proud to say that as of this Friday, for the first time ever, I don’t just have a bunch of books: I have a library. The shelves, installed by Crooked Oak of Chicago, are gorgeous, and they perfectly match what I wanted: shelves on all four walls, reaching nearly to the ceiling, with just enough room for a desk, chair, and window seat. The shelves are a nice, dense cherrywood laminate that goes beautifully with the room’s vintage details—the house dates from 1907—and they’ve been painstakingly installed to account for the uneven floors. The result gives me plenty of room for the thousand or so books that I’ve retained over the years, along with such miscellaneous items as my recently acquired Replogle Globe. In fact, I now have more shelf space than I have books to fill it, which is decidedly strange—I’m not used to feeling that I don’t have enough books.

The really novel luxury is being able to look around at my personal library at a glance, without any books hiding in stacks or second layers. It gives me a snapshot of what I know and don’t know and, indirectly, of who I am—because a library, more than anything else, is a self-portrait, and casting my eyes around this room is like taking a tour of my own life, from the shelf of classics in Latin and Greek to the books on Duchamp to the long row of Peanuts collections. I’ve even begun doing something I’ve never done before, which is to arrange the books roughly by subject, while still keeping a healthy amount of disorder. And I’ve been left what feels, above all else, like a place where a writer can really get some work done. In short, I think I’m going to be spending a lot of time here. And it will never be nearly enough.

Written by nevalalee

April 9, 2012 at 9:59 am

Posted in Books

Tagged with ,

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