boxing up the bookshelf
this is an early draft of a meandering i wrote in the fall of 2016, one that became an essay, Boyhood on a Shelf, that ran, blessedly, in the new york times book review on april 9, 2017. it’s escaped in draft form a couple times already (only for a flash of a moment before i nabbed it and lassoed it back here, where it’s been dawdling), and this time, i’m letting it go because the idea of curating a collection of timeless children’s books is one i believe in, and because i’d love to hear what titles you’d include in such a library.
one by one, i ran my index finger along the spines of the books. one by one, i remembered. one by one, i slipped the books off the shelf and into the hollow moving box, the books of a boyhood slipping away.
the titles — the hobbit, tom sawyer, the cricket in times square, my father’s dragon, the tales of narnia, a boxed set, harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone, the phantom tollbooth — one by one, each sent a volt of varied wattage.
the american boy’s handy book, for instance, daniel beard’s 1882 instructional for boyhood, “a state of natural savagery,” with its directions on how to build a pine-branch house or a birch-bark canoe, with its instructions on fishing for fresh-water clams, constructing a miniature boomerang or a wooden water telescope, or simply extolling the novelties in soap bubbles, it began to wobble my knees. i remembered the day i’d first spied the centennial edition at a beloved bookshop and carried it home, intent on giving my boy the most old-fashioned life of adventure, and a sure guide to survival as well.
my father’s dragon, the mid-20th-century trilogy of dragon stories from ruth stiles gannett, it had me in tears. as soon as the pillowy pad of my fingertip rubbed against its worn-smooth spine, i was flung back in time, wedged bum-to-bum on the bedsheets, snug against my then-beginning-to-read firstborn in his four-poster bed. turning pages, taking turns turning the pages, his eager fingers pinching the page’s corner, my lazy hand patiently waiting. the bedtimes when words began to take form, when pen-and-ink illustrations were seared into memory, collective memory, his and mine, at once distinct and enmeshed. the bedtimes that colored so many dreams, storybook dreams.
i couldn’t bear to let them all go, so deeply ingrained they were with a life i had loved, a life passage now being tucked in a box, transported miles away, and slid onto a grown man’s bookshelf, alongside tomes on law and philosophy and literature, subjects he now trades in, now is schooled in, subjects that now plot his trajectory.
and as much as i ached to ease them off the shelf, i was heartened to know — deeply — that they mattered to him. that he wouldn’t be home, wouldn’t feel home, till his books — his whole lifetime of books — were tucked on the new shelves in the new place he calls home.
that’s what the books of a childhood, of a boyhood, do: they forever bind us. and, ever after, they take us back, separate and together. they return us to long-ago, to once upon a time.
of all the playthings of my children’s childhood, it’s the books where we shared the most time. trains, my firstborn played with often alone, me off in a corner, occasionally lending a guttural chug or a choo or a whistle, or, later, when he was old enough to imagine all by himself, i’d be down the stairs and around a few bends, rattling around in the kitchen.
but the books, the books were where we nestled, where we sank in deep together. the books are where our hearts did so very much of their stitching together.
and so, the pages of the books — the pictures, the covers, the crinkled dog-eared edges — those are the relics, sacred relics of the years when i was keeping my promise to open his heart, to infuse the beautiful, the gentle, the wise. and the books were my guideposts, my road marks.
the books of my little boys’ beginnings, they were the holy scripture that whispered the lessons i prayed they would learn: ferdinand, the gentle bull? be kind. be not afraid to march to your own music. harry potter? believe in magic. the tales of narnia? defend what is good. tom sawyer? roam and roam widely. and never mind if you tumble into a slight bit of mischief.
no wonder, of all the stacks of clothes, the contents of a desk drawer, and all the other shelves of books, the only one that made me wince, the only one i thought i wouldn’t be able to pack away, to let go, to watch glide out the door and into the glimmering downtown tower that now is home to my firstborn, the only one that stopped me in my tracks was the shelf of my firstborn’s boyhood.
not one to sulk for too too long — only after brushing away the tears i kept to myself — i hatched a plan: as one taketh away, so one receives. as i slapped the long serpentine wrap of packing tape across the top of the book box, i promised myself i’d build a new library, one built on the blueprints of children’s librarians who’ve culled lists of the best of the best. the new york public library’s 100 great children’s books. my little town’s own librarians’ roster of classic picture books, and classic novels, grades 2 through 5, and 5 through 8.
i’d make it my mission, my task of enchantment, to map the quaintest of used book shops. i’d scour the shelves for a particular roster of titles. and, one by one, i’d re-build a collection, a curated collection of children’s books that stand the test of time and, most of all, heart.
in the hours of my heart’s tugging, when the boy i love was moving away for good and likely forever, the one balm i knew to apply was the balm of the bookshelf, the balm of construction, of building, amid the act of dismantling, of packing up and moving away.
it’s not an assignment that comes with a deadline. it took years — and the accumulated wisdom of countless bibliophiles who, over those years, slipped titles into my hands with a knowing nod, or the question, “have you seen this one?” — to build that shelf in the first place.
and it will take years, and the deep joy of engagement, to build the one i’ll bequeath to both my boys, and whoever might be the next little readers to come toddling along.
what titles would you be sure to include if you were building the essential children’s bookshelf?