This week I finally got around to replacing an ill-fitting bookcase with bespoke shelves – it’s a rather long space with an irregularity in the wall, so nothing else would do – and as I set about reshelving my books, I found myself reflecting on decades of life, work and joy.
Like many of us here in Melbourne, lockdown was a time of deep reflection for me, rediscovering half-finished pieces and long-lost projects, and setting out on new adventures. On days when my spirits were restless, I would embark on spatial explorations, often at the prompt of friends working across a range of artforms and practice modes.
Every metre of space is to be treasured in my little home, and these adventures made me all the more aware of its limitations – and its possibilities. So I was determined to get around to replacing that bookcase, at last being able to shelve my books in neat horizontals, spines out, rather than sitting two rows deep in awkward wooden bays.
A darling neighbour found a new home for that bookcase in her own apartment, and undeterred by the day’s lift failure, two other neighbours carried the weighty wooden piece up three flights of stairs – gorgeous! All four of us so literary as to want to see no time lost to the pleasure of finding homes for books.
For weeks my own books had sat piled high in front of another narrower wall of shelves, spines to the side to save space, waiting for their new home to be built. They sat there for long enough to have forgotten the patterns they used to make, the stories they used to tell as my eye would scan across for the one I was looking for, only to be distracted most happily by the one I found instead.
Bookshelves are venturesome and libraries playgrounds. A book on its own is an invitation to fold or curl the body into the posture that most comfortably welcomes its pages, reading for moments or for hours. Bring many books together and you have a history, a mystery, a provocation, a terrain, a culture.
And yet, when the time came to set old books onto new shelves, somehow I thought this would be a practical task, a chore, something to be approached expediently. Instead, I found myself uncovering a personal archaeology.
Unearthing the strata of life, rediscovering where I was in space and time when I bought that book, what I was reading or researching, what it meant to be able to afford it, how shameful that it was now covered in dust.
Finding books alongside books coexisting in that stratum, either by a coincidence of time or a confluence of interests, and then finding myself asking questions I hadn’t explored in decades, connecting writers and philosophers and artists and critics in new ways, ready for the new questions I would find myself asking.
It was this finding myself again, of course, that was the most beautiful discovery. Bring many books together and you have an identity. With all spines out for the first time in years, I was able to read that identity anew. At times it was a me that I could hardly recognise – what was I researching at that time? Why was that so important to me? Have I stopped to recognise what it led to? – and yet, I found these moments so grounding.
Here, in this small space, that it was still possible to find myself in new ways once again – and that, inevitably, I would come to have this regrounding experience more than once again, as I keep reading and writing my way through life.