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My End of the Shelf

So Steven has filled an imaginary bookshelf, but I assume there’s still a bit of room at the end for me to toss in a few titles. And the bookshelf can remain imaginary, becuase the plan when books are unpacked completely is (I think) to stick with alphabetical order, rather than any kind of idiosyncratic personal-resonance filing system. But here are the books that have been core for me, leaving out all the ones Steven already tackled. In thinking of “me” I tend to start counting at around age 11, so I doubt anything older than that will show up on the list. I’m sure I was basically the same person, but 11 was a core year for descent into self-doubt and fury, and so it always seems like a good turning point.

David Fiore got to it first, Robert Benchley’s My Ten Years in a Quandary and How They Grew deserves a prime spot as the first book I remember making me laugh aloud. (The story in question was “Talking Dogs,” which I still find funnier than it probably is.)

For the same reason I Capture the Castle would be there, except that every time I buy a copy I give it as a gift. Luckily this is an imaginary shelf, though, so the only Dodie Smith book I’ve ever read (and I’d gladly read her diaries but plan to keep avoiding 101 Dalmations) gets a spot for its incredible voice and consistency and just plain fun.

Notes from Underground was my version of The Catcher in the Rye, a book that seemed to incorporate all of the idealism and agony of my adolescent experiences into one slim volume in a way that made pure sense to me at the time. Fyodor Dostoyevsky probably deserves more spots on the list, but this is the clearest winner.

Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch is probably my favorite collection of retold fairy tales, but she hit my life first and hardest with Stir-Fry. I used to have a little piece of paper (maybe still do) with all the quotes I found meaningful scribbled all over it with page numbers. I have not reread it as an adult, since it’s the only of her books I’ve never found in a used book store, but I’ll go back to it someday, when its meaning will be a bit different.

For maybe five years afterwards from high school into my early college years, I had an answer when someone would ask what my favorite book was, though the answer changed. I went from Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I don’t think I ever gave the last as an answer, because when I figured it could supplant The Satanic Verses I decided I might as well give up on that listed favorites thing.

For poetry, I need Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and probably her Sappho translations, too, with the lovely facing Greek. I’m not sure yet what else, as I’ve been gone from poetry for so long. Some Zbigniew Herbert, certainly. I have a collection of poems I love by Forough Faroughzhad, but can’t think of the title right now; it was salvaged from a trash can when a professor was unloading unwanted books. Jorie Graham. Marge Piercy, maybe Early Grrl.

Perhaps I like short stories best, but for now I’ll leave them off my list for now. It’s getting long enough. And no non-fiction, either, reference books and Montse Stanley’s guide to knitting and lots of histories and biographies and anthropology and criticism! This is why I can’t have a shelf, because I wouldn’t know where to stop until I had practically all the shelves I have anyway. But since I don’t feel a deep need to have all my meaningful texts nearby to harness their talismanic power or anything like that, it’s fine that the shelf is imaginary.