The Bookshelf: Making The Intangible Concrete

I recently read The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time by David L. Ulin. I started it at approximately 11:00PM, and next thing I knew it was after 2:00AM, and I was nearing the end. I hadn’t read a book in a single sitting in years – I’d become too easily distracted by my smartphone, PVR, and laptop. The Lost Art of Reading is not a long book, with only 150 short pages, and in fact you could probably classify it as an extended essay rather than a novel. I highly recommend it for anyone who’s ever categorized their personal library or smiled at the smell of a large, slightly musty used book store.

Ulin begins with the tale of his teenage son who is forced to not only read but annotate The Great Gatsby for homework, which causes his son to complain that “it would be so much easier if they’d let me read it.” After finally finishing the book, Ulin’s son suggests “This is why reading is over. None of my friends like it. Nobody wants to do it anymore.” If you’ve talked to a teenager recently who owns a smartphone, laptop, and video game system, you’ll realize how realistic this is. How many teachers have ruined teenagers’ interests in reading in some similar manner? The tale of his son’s Great Gatsby homework is woven throughout the essay, as Ulin deliberates his son’s proclamation, wondering if perhaps he’s right. He reflects on his own childhood, and his obsession with books, book stores, and authors, noting that he “frames the world through books.” This book critic loves reading and everything associated with it, including wondering about what the future of reading will look like.

This book had a lot of really great passages which I dog-eared, and I hope it’s okay to share them. If nothing else it should encourage everyone to go out and purchase this book (no, that’s not an affiliate ad) – it’s a great quick read. The first passage that struck me was Ulin’s description of his teenage bookshelf.

On Bookshelves:

Ulin writes of  the bookshelves he had as a teenager, and how he arranged his books on large “floor-to-ceiling shelves stretching across one long wall of my bedroom”, with his favourite authors “on a shelf in the center of the wall, everything else radiating outward from that core. In my mind, this was the library as virtual city, a litropolis, in which the further you were from the axis, the less essential a story you had to tell. To populate this city, I bought books at sales and in secondhand shops, by writers I often didn’t know.”

“Some of them I read (….) and some I never got to. But there they were, all of them, on those shelves together, my attempt at mapping the literary city in my mind. Although I don’t want to make too much of this, looking back I can’t help but see it as a strategy for turning concrete something that might otherwise have remained the most elusive of abstractions, as if only by thinking metaphorically might I take my interests, tastes, desires, even my aspirations, and make them three-dimensional and solid in the world.”

Isn’t that what a bookshelf really is? It represents your interests, tastes, desires, and in the books you have purchased but not yet read, perhaps some of your aspirations. Books give form to these ideas, making them substantial and tangible.

Ulin’s voice is ultimately optimistic (yet realistic), as he explores what it is that reading has to offer us. Next I’ll take a look at what book stores mean to him.

 

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