Ode To A Bookshelf

hannah nesichAbout five weeks ago, my house caught on fire.

I learned this after missing nine phone calls, then opening up a picture text my brother sent of a fire truck in our driveway.

A few hours of hysterical crying and countless conversations later, I learned almost all casualties were nothing beyond material, and many of them temporary.

My family wasn’t home at the time and I can’t truly express my gratitude for that fact, or for the 10 fire companies who saved my home of 22 years. And I will always remain resentful towards the faulty, outdated electrical wiring under the living room floor.

Fortunately, the charred rooms are being rebuilt while the valuables are being accessed, a process that could take up to nine months.

Unfortunately, my bedroom happens to be above the room that was apparently described by firefighters as a “ball of flames.”

So let’s get this out of the way: We lost a lot of shit. Some of it salvagable, most of it not.

For me, almost everything in my childhood room is now severely water and smoke damaged. Prom dresses, a patch-covered varsity jacket, my favorite stuffed dog named Billy who everyone assumed was a bear, trophies I “won” for  childhood sports that I earned by standing in the outfield and braiding the hair of the girl playing second base. Clothes upon clothes upon clothes.

I don’t like to grieve about what I can’t change. I know how lucky I am for my family’s safety and how little material things matter in the end.

But there is something that is irreversibly damaged that deserves attention: the hundreds of lives, stories and memories that existed in the countless books that lined my built-in bookshelf.

It was simple, just boards hammered into the wall, five or six at most. I do not know a time they weren’t stacked end to end with paperbacks and hardcovers.

On one shelf sat every book in the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” series by Lemony Snicket, the one series that somehow managed to unify both me and my big brother during the years when a simple snicker could trigger a screaming match and tears.

On the board above was “The Clique” series: a set of books aimed at pre-teens, essentially serving as a how-to guide for becoming a popular bully with shiny hair (fortunately, I was a slow learner).

There was book after book from my grandmother, a voracious reader who rightfully considers literature to be one of the greatest gifts to give. I read most of them, but a few sat on the sidelines, eagerly waiting their turn but collecting dust as another appealingly new batch came in each birthday.

When I was 10, I’d sit in a tree in my front yard reading for hours. In the warmest months, I was hidden by lush green leaves. But once the crimson autumn leaves fell, I was visible from down the street: a gangly girl clutching a Margaret Peterson Haddix novel close to her chest, wrapped in the branches of a small hickory.

Books were almost all I had for a majority of my childhood. I wasn’t a popular kid; most friends were few and far between until late middle school. They existed in the pages I read. Though I rarely read a book twice, the presence of those pages, three feet away from my pillow, provided me with solace. “Harold and the Purple Crayon.” “The ‘Dear America’ Series.” The  “Harry Potter” series. “Prep.” The characters in these books taught me about resilience and human fallacy, respect and decisiveness.

“You can buy more books.” Yes, I’ve been told. But even if it was rational to scavenge Amazon for hundreds of sentimental books (plot twist: it isn’t), it wouldn’t replicate the originals or their dog-eared, popsicle-stained pages.

This is my thank you to the many authors who taught me, who have perished in what will eventually be known as “that time my house was on fire senior year of college.” Someday, you will be reduced to just that. But right now, this is my ode to you.