Reading Every Unread Book on My Bookshelf During the Pandemic
Angelica Baker on Building a Home, One Book at a Time
If you climb out my kitchen window onto the fire escape, you look down on our building’s tiny, lush garden. An elderly Polish couple used to live on the ground floor, with their toy-sized fluffball of a dog. The husband never acknowledged my greetings, but he and his wife brought the garden lovingly to life every spring. Two years ago, when they moved out, the landlord’s son moved in and left the garden to its own wildness. It’s choking to death now on its own weeds.
I’m out there all the time since New York’s quarantine began three months ago and left me feeling skittish about city parks—even a view of strangled greenery feels at least a little like summer. There is a tangible feeling of the neighborhood viewed from the fire escape that doesn’t exist from our other windows, which face a drab, imposing luxury building. Out there, I can see the neighbors’ back gardens, too. I can see the roof deck two blocks away, where a young (usually shirtless) father brings his baby out to wave to neighbors. I watched new construction climb on the lot behind ours, its crew working throughout the pandemic. I saw their communal lunch hour become socially distanced, their Friday evening drinks (beer in Solo cups, still wearing hard hats) suspended.
As a child, I watched Rear Window and told myself that city life would be just like that; I would know my neighbors’ routines and foibles and secrets as well as I knew my own. I haven’t seen any murders from the fire escape, and I’ve restrained myself from peering into any windows. But only in this unusual season, out there more often than ever before, have my own daily rhythms come to match those of my neighbors. In the evenings, I climb out with a glass of wine for a muted happy hour, just before everyone floods their windowsills for the seven o’clock appreciation cheer. In the mornings I sip my coffee in the sunshine, nodding to the neighbors on balconies sitting hunched over laptops, answering emails. And always, at whatever time of day, I take the book I’m reading.
That week in March when things turned, the week the NBA canceled its season, I flew home to Los Angeles. The visit had been planned for weeks. My mother’s February visit to the ER resulted in her being rushed into emergency surgery, and a month later, she was still recovering.
The thing about my mother’s house is that books cover, and I mean this quite literally, every single available surface. Stacks clog the living room floor, spread across her bed like laundry dropped from an upturned hamper, Jenga themselves to precarious heights on side tables. When I visit at Christmas, I behave like a Victorian invalid: curling under cashmere blankets, accepting endless cups of tea, reading for hours on end.There would be no skipping allowed and no rereading of old favorites permitted. I would have to finish every book.
But in March she was the invalid, and I was purportedly the nurse. I stocked her pantry, retrieved her medications from the pharmacy, frantically pounced on any stray bottle of cleaning product I spotted on her drugstore’s desiccated shelves. But I couldn’t read. I couldn’t focus on anything but Twitter. I watched Governor Cuomo’s press conferences for no discernible reason, frozen in a benumbed slouch. I fretted that my flight back would be canceled, then read about super-spreading and felt like a villainous moron for having made the trip at all. I drank far too much of the wine my mother always lays in for my visits and tried to read a Russell Banks novel about the brutal callousness with which our society treats sex offenders. It was not a book for the moment. My mother tried to read Station Eleven. A bit too of the moment. Eventually, we just gave up and spent hours watching The OC.
Safely back in Brooklyn, I decided that I couldn’t live that way for months, my thoughts never alighting on anything longer than a news graf. I needed to impose some discipline. I needed to escape from my own brain, and the only way I’ve ever understood how to do that (without recreational substances) is reading.
I make that distinction with only a slight wink: the place reading occupies in my life is really that of a vice. I apply myself to it like an alcoholic on a drinking binge that never ends; I do it compulsively, for days and hours I have pledged (to myself and others) to spend doing other things. It is no accident that I’ve arranged my adult life such that I can spend a full day reading and then lean on the pretentions of “research” or “craft,” as if I only dip into someone else’s fiction as part of the diligent work of writing my own. I gushed once, at a reading for my first novel, that I “would never love writing the way I love to read,” then felt my cheeks burn when the acclaimed novelist next to me arched one eyebrow.
I know nothing about music or gardening or any sports beyond NBA basketball; I spend absolutely no time doing any sort of craft with my hands. I joke that “fast reader” is my one marketable skill. My father admonished me when, as a child, I’d trip over the stepping stones in our backyard because I refused to close my book when I walked to the garage. On family trips I would pack my pink Jansport backpack with novels (Anne of Green Gables, Cynthia Voigt, Lois Duncan) and then devour them, unable to pace myself. My mother would send me to purchase an airport paperback for the flight home, which meant that I had furtively explored a decent chunk of Mary Higgins Clark’s lurid catalogue before I hit puberty.
There have been various times, though, when I’ve found myself unable to read anything at all. Those are warnings, usually my first indication that I’m slipping into a blackness that will be slow to shake, periods when what I usually regard as an innate “moodiness” verges into something less manageable.
I sat in my living room in late March and knew that I wanted to guard against this. My fear, my paralysis, was no longer a question of my own projected failures and cultivated neuroses. It was, frankly, a logical response to the roiling world outside the apartment where I’d be hunkered down for the foreseeable future. I needed a reading project, I thought, and the libraries were closed. I stared at my bookshelves.
My books are arranged by color, alphabetized within each shade. The first shelf holds the blue spines, and as you move down the line you pass the reds, the yellows, the blacks and the whites and the shelf reserved for colorful, unclassifiable jackets. In quarantine, I decided, I would read through the shelves in order. I would read every single book I had never picked up. There would be no skipping allowed and no rereading of old favorites permitted. I would have to finish every book. I posted a picture to Instagram, just to make it official, and started the next morning.
The “project” did not begin auspiciously. The very first book was A Death in the Family, by James Agee. It was quiet and gray and mournful. It was not what I wanted to read in the third week of March. I would never have picked it up of my own volition, but this felt like someone else’s volition. It was a relief, some organized authority telling me what to do amidst an apocalyptic lack of organization, even if that someone was an amorphous force I’d made up. My brother teased me—why wasn’t I allowed to “break the rules?” But I wasn’t.
I read Lucia Berlin, whose stories I had been “meaning to read soon” for four years. I read All the Light We Cannot See, a book I’ve discounted in the past surely just because I’m jealous of its eye-popping success, and found it an absorbing, delightful distraction. I read White Noise, which I’m pretty sure I had previously claimed to have read but absolutely never had.
In a serendipitous turn, I picked up The Narrow Road to the Deep North on Mother’s Day, when I was already thinking about my Australian grandmother. She moved to Los Angeles after the war to marry the young American naval officer she met in Sydney, a boy who had survived Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea, and Guadalcanal. Richard Flanagan’s novel is a grueling read, moving from rural Tasmania to mainland Australia to a Japanese POW camp in Burma. But it made me feel, as I read, close to my grandparents again. They are both dead now, and neither one of them was ever greatly interested in telling me about their lives before they settled together in southern California. I asked my grandmother once what had drawn her to him, and she shrugged as she told me simply that he was the first boyfriend who survived. They were two unhappy people, irreversibly scarred by a war that began when they were little more than teenagers. But they stayed married until the day he died. I finished the novel just before Memorial Day.
I have lived in Brooklyn for nine years. In my first apartment, I took the smallest, jaggedly-shaped bedroom. I was a literary assistant, and every single dollar I spent terrified me. If she folded the walls in, she’d have built her own coffin, my roommate told visitors. There wasn’t room for my desk to face the window, and the closet was too shallow for my boyfriend to hang his suits when he visited from Washington.
I stacked the books my mother shipped from Los Angeles along the top of my dresser, and when I ran out of space there, the boyfriend installed two floating Ikea shelves above my bed. They sloped alarmingly. Customer reviews assured us this was normal, but I would lie awake at night with my chin tilted towards them, waiting for the first hardcover to smack my forehead.
Most of my books were acquired – that is, stolen – from my workplace. In the final days before I began graduate school, I filled tote bags on my way out of the office. The spoils moved with me that August to a quieter (and cheaper) part of Williamsburg.
There, my bedroom floor warped at odd angles. I propped pieces of wood under my dresser and never bought an actual bookshelf. The boyfriend once again installed the perilous floating shelves, and I stacked the rest on the floor. A few years later, I moved into the apartment’s largest bedroom. Finally, I had space for my books. I could stop culling, stop bitterly regretting the ones sold to The Strand for pennies.
I ran out of space a few months later. I started culling again.
When I moved in with the boyfriend, though, we bought actual shelving units from IKEA, and it felt like luxury. I let the books begin to accumulate. I never got rid of anything. I ran out of shelves that first year.
When I look at the books now, I see the good fortune of enough space to keep them all near me. I touch my fingertips to them like I would to a talisman: something that will remind me of its origins, keep me safe. Underworld: empty lounge at the rooftop bar, about to clock in for my afternoon shift. American Pastoral: Madison Square Park because the NYU dorm was sweltering. The Sport of Kings: hungover on the bullet train from Kyoto. The Secret History: insomnia, thunderstorm. The Sellout: A blanket in Central Park, waiting for theater tickets. Ferrante: the beach in Montauk, burned so badly that I couldn’t sit down that evening. The Red Parts: burst into tears on the G train.
After four years in this apartment, acquiring more books, the thought constantly tugging at the corners of my brain is that I’ll eventually have to move them all somewhere else.
This thought used to be an idle, surefire way to poke at my own anxiety. When this year began, though, I knew that it would be my last in New York. The boyfriend is the husband now, and he got a job in Boston. But even this is now uncertain due to, of all things, a global pandemic. Compared to so many other New Yorkers, the tumult this brought into our lives has been entirely manageable. We’re lucky. We’re safe, we’re healthy, we can afford to buy groceries, we can afford to stay home. My husband still has a job.
But we no longer know whether that job will require a move, and if it doesn’t, we no longer know whether we’ll be able to make the (already precarious in The Before) financial realities of New York workable. As I write this essay, our landlords have refused to negotiate a short-term lease. Our future plans still, as yet, don’t exist. We just keep wearing masks to the grocery store, keep weighing the idea of taking a book to the park, keep anxiously climbing out onto the fire escape instead.
Last year, after Marie Kondo’s Netflix show debuted, many people huffed that they would never just get rid of all my books. Other people replied, scornfully, that anyone threatened by the concept must see books as mere status symbols, no different from the white wine you bring home from Greece or the rare jazz record you cue on your turntable.There are so many books now that I can no longer remember exactly where each one came from. But when I can, it feels like reciting a spell.
There is, probably, a kernel of truth there. I was an awkward, gangly child who was never good at anything except school, so I retain a somewhat insufferable taste for being told that I’m smart, or a fast reader. I shouldn’t pretend that this part of me doesn’t preen when a stranger walks into my apartment and admires the bookshelves.
But it’s not just that. Looking at them reminds me that I’m home, that I live somewhere I chose to live, with someone I chose to live with, surrounded by things we choose to love and cultivate and remember. The bookshelves are the reason that sitting on our couch (“I like it,” a friend said when we moved in, “no TV, just sit there staring at the books”) feels safe. They are the reason that this one spot in the apartment feels most like home.
It seems obvious to me now, in a way it didn’t back then, that the suspended anxiety of this entire year is not unrelated to whatever led me to post a picture of my bookshelves to Instagram back in March. I knew that I would have to stay home for an indeterminate amount of time. I knew that the very question of how much longer it would be “home” was about to become unanswerable. And I soothed myself, in that moment, with a reason to spend the next few months examining my books, touching each spine, reminding myself of all that I have. There are so many books now that I can no longer remember exactly where each one came from. But when I can, it feels like reciting a spell, like conjuring the rooms I lived in and the jobs I worked and the people who hurt me and the girls I was. It feels, each time I take one of them down from its shelf, like reassuring myself: you’re here, still, for now. This is where you’ve lived.