Lessons From My Shelf

Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go… Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time.

Annie Dillard, as reported by her former student Alexander Chee
The first fiction cove in Northshire Books, Manchester VT, where today’s story is set…

My shelf was knee high in the first cubby of fiction, the wing that ran from A through Cr, like homeroom. I had to sit on the footstool to read it.

Forty-six books, mostly but not all in paperback.

Two that I’d read. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and All the Wrong Moves. Two of forty six, about four percent.

Most were there as single copies, alone at the cocktail reception and hoping to find a conversation. Nine were twinned with an identical partner, only one in triplet—the featured book of the row, the only one faced out rather than spinewise, and the only hardback.

Only three writers represented by more than a single book. Chabon, Chevalier, Choi. All the rest: only their most recent, or their most famous, or their only.

In class, the idea seemed ridiculous. But at some point after the class ended, I did it. I walked up to the shelf. Chabon. Cheever. I put my finger between them and made a space. Soon, I did it every time I went to a bookstore.

Alexander Chee

By luck of the draw, Chee and Childress would have been shelfmates. I would’ve said hi, but he wasn’t there. But I do know that his bookstore is far smaller than mine, if he could have merely put a finger between Chabon and Cheever. I could have fit my whole forearm in there, shoving aside Mai-Lee Chai and Patrick Chamoiseau and Eileen Chang and Dan Chaon and Kate Chapin and Sasha Chapin and Ryan Chapman and Jerome Charyn and Eve Chase and Maunta Chaudhry and Amit Chaudhury and Chip Cheek. We all know those partygoers who only talk with us for a few minutes until they spot someone important, and immediately leave us forgotten. I fear that Alexander Chee would do that to me, based on the name-dropping in his collection of personal essays that I bought a couple of weeks ago from a different neighborhood in the bookstore altogether. We’re all climbers, even though we inhabit different levels at any moment.

At any rate, my own finger landed, with more precision, between Jennifer Chiaverini’s Resistance Women and Richard Chizmar’s Gwendy’s Magic Feather. Fine neighbors, though not previously known to me. I said hi to them both, and they wished me good luck but let me know that it was lonely sometimes, and that they wrote their asses off: Chizmar as a twenty-year horror writer with books and stories and screenplays galore, Chiaverini with thirty-eight books that I might classify as “cozy history,” originating in her experience as a quiltmaker and quilting teacher. Get busy, they said to me, and then went silent.

I felt like I should make an offering, in gratitude for letting me hang out and pretend to be a colleague. So, because I’ve been at work on a book about extraordinarily talented teenagers, I bought one of the three hardback copies of Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, since it also evokes the experience of talent, and confusion, and high school.

Her sixth book.

Get busy.

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