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Supplement: Princeton - 3 (Rebuilding)


Elliott Eglash

The dust in the air is thick enough that the light streaming in through the window seems diffracted, and almost tangible. My bookshelf stands against the wall, empty, a skeleton with its spine exposed. My books lie on the floor. It began with an accumulation of them (on the nightstand, the desk, the dresser), and it ends in this, a reevaluation. There’s only so much space, after all.

I begin piling books into bags, starting with the easy choices: the pop-fiction, the melodramas, the fantasy novels that I had read avidly several years ago. They served their purpose at one point, but my needs as a reader have grown past what they could offer. Still, I keep the childhood books that have some worth, the ones that provided more than idle entertainment. These works were simple literature, unadorned and unburdened by gimmicks or pretensions. They were my gateway into the literary world. As I put them back in their place, restoring tissue to bone, the bookshelf begins to resemble itself again.

But it can never be what it was before, exactly. It is an amalgam of separate parts, and a product of excision. I pile more books into more bags. Some of these choices are not so easy. I find myself having to put away books that consumed me before, but that only conjure up vaguely enjoyable memories now. There is barely any available space for nostalgia or sentiment; every addition to the shelf necessitates a subtraction. And still, there is work to be done. Each book discarded feels like a betrayal. Something that once brought me pleasure is now stuffed into a crinkled paper bag. Is the glint of unblemished book jackets worth having to part ways with old favorites? It’s not even clear what an old favorite is worth. Certainly there are memories, but I’m not sure how much that counts when compared to the possibilities that lie ahead; I can only try to hold onto that which is most important to me.

Hours later, my bookshelf has been rebuilt. It is no longer dusty, and books are no longer in danger of falling off. And, though it may be changed, it is also whole. Each book that remains is a story, and each a memory. Some that I once enjoyed, and which were once very dear to me, have been packed up and stored. In the end, though, they are not beyond my reach. A simple trek to the attic will reunite me with what I’ve left behind. Whatever their faults, they were worth something to me at one point, and that means that they are worth something to me now. The faded covers, with slight discolorations where my thumb rested, are proof of that.

I know that, eventually, I will have to repeat this process. There will be another round of filtration, and not everything that I like now will still fit through the sieve. But, for now, the books stand on the shelves, upright. The mere sight of them induces waves of reminiscence, from afternoons spent supine on my bed, engrossed in one world or another. And, despite their differences in their plots and styles, they share that history. The words may be different, but the alphabet is the same. After all this, too, everything seems to fit. There is not an inch of wasted space, and the fit between books is just tight enough, like an embrace. I know that each addition is a subtraction, but I also know that it is addition nonetheless.

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