(Gabrielle Mayer)– I once read an article asserting that familiar smells–an old perfume, a grandmother’s blueberry pie–are biologically hardwired to bring back a rush of vivid memories or emotions. For me, the plots of certain novels accomplish this just as potently. “Cat’s Cradle” transports me to summer camp, where I read Vonnegut’s odd humor by dim flashlight. “The Dharma Bums” evokes the crackling fireplace in front of which I always spend my winter breaks, thawing myself out after first semester.
By consequence, the contents of my bookcase aren’t just “books.” They are moments in time–some are hardcover, others are paperback; some lengthy, others abridged – stacked neatly in rows. These tomes tell my life’s story spine-by-spine and shelf-by-shelf…and so to ask me about my bookshelf is to inquire where I’ve been, what I’ve learned, and how I’ve grown.
It’s therefore easy to imagine my dismay as I watched my painstakingly curated collection of high school novels atrophy into the pile of paperbacks that currently sits in a storage unit down Route 9, near Belchertown. Way back in early August, when the words “Val sit” meant little to me, I made the decision to only bring the essentials with me to school. To pre-freshman Gaby, this mainly implied my dog-eared anthologies of Austen and Bronte. I toted these volumes to Massachusetts in my backpack, carrying them snugly against my laptop and orientation packet and all the other Very Important Things that I deemed necessary for collegiate success. When I first climbed the three flights to my freshman year abode, I made a beeline to my bookshelf and propped up these treasured novels; from across the room, the sight of their well-worn spines was a beacon of comforting familiarity to me.
As the year progressed, I inevitably found myself “settling” into college – not only in the more obvious emotional sense, but in a material sense as well. Bit by bit, posters covered bare dorm walls; makeshift curtains went up over undersized closets; after one inspired evening of roommate bonding, our ceiling was left peppered with glow-in-the-dark stars. My bookshelf filled, too – but not in the way I anticipated. Almost forgotten, my Victorian heroines competed for space on my bookshelf with the unforgiving hardcovers of Biology and Chemistry textbooks, or the assiduously highlighted pages of my Art History essay collections.
Somehow, amongst the novelty and chaos of my first year at college, I lost (or perhaps better said, temporarily misplaced) my desire to escape into fiction. I can’t say I regret shedding my bookworm instincts; for while my adventures haven’t always been as glamorous as the ones described by my beloved authors, they’ve been even more instructive, humbling and character building. Still – a (not-so-little) part of me is conscious of a sense of loss, a sense of estrangement from the girl I was at the beginning of fall semester.
I write to you from the “quiet after the storm.” It’s that languid stretch of summer when, recovering from the marathon of sleep deprivation that is Amherst College, we still feel justified lounging around in PJs through the late afternoon. For my part, my time at home is making it easy to fall back into old habits…and so I find myself falling asleep with a book by my side more often than not. I’ve observed that I’m literally retracing the paths first paved by my former self – to the Barnes and Noble I used to frequent, to the cafés and Central Park benches where I so loved to curl up and read, to and from my tall white bookshelf with its meaningful contents. But after such a long hiatus, these traditions all feel foreign and exciting. My triumphant return back to reading, like so many things, is now a feat of compromise between who I was and who I’ve become. I can only hope that by the time August rolls around again, I’ll have some new favorites to display next to Brontë and Austen.