Shelf Life


Shelf Life

by Sophie McManus

We asked the author of The Unfortunates to give us some insight into her disordered book collection and the importance of searching the shelves.

I love photos of authors sitting in front of their books. These photos always convey a hint of pride, but also a sense that the author is laying herself bare to the viewer. However distinguished or enigmatic her half-smile, the story behind the author offers all her secrets. It says: these books are who I am. I’m reminded of ingredients on a cooking show, displayed beside a beautifully finished pie. The books that author wrote are made up of all the books on the shelf behind her, too.  


If you stare hard enough at one of these shelves (the way you might the first time you find yourself in the home of a crush or a hero), you start to see the less obvious patterns. Beyond the books’ subjects, you can see what kind of story or sound or image moves their owner most deeply. Ah, you realize, this person loves a love story, set on a wind swept frontier. No city love for him. What happened to him, to make a flat, sideways wind matter so much? Or, look here, this person is drawn to ferocious humor, humor-in-despair, in long, spilling sentences, as a society rises or falls.


Sometimes I zoom in on photos to read the titles behind the heads of authors I admire. (Writers are greedy for the little secrets of any particular human, but you know that already.) Once, I zoomed in on a book critic’s shelf to see if my book was there, but that’s petty and embarrassing—pure egoism, the opposite of discovering another person, and thus also the opposite of reading fiction.


My bookshelves—in the living room and my office—are a mess. I refuse to put them in any order. This is maddening. I curse myself, looking for a book. But I have my reasons. To look for any book, I have to scan and scan my shelves, and in doing so I am forced to visit with all my books, however long ago I read them. It’s like insisting that instead of having that drink with one old friend from high school, every visit to the past must be a full-on reunion. Like any reunion, that includes running into acquaintances you’d prefer not to, because they remind you of some idiot thing you did when you knew them. Or maybe (as with books and exes) you run into someone you adored, who consumed your youthful obsessions, and now, by the bar or up there on the top shelf, you see them and—they are nothing to you. How strange that makes you feel about being mortal, and the passage of time, and about never really knowing who you are or who you will become.

Most often, though, I fall in love with an old book all over again, unexpectedly.


The disorder of my books is also a small rebellion against the algorithmic precision of our age. To search for a book online is to be excruciatingly organized across many thousands of data points that you will never be privy to, about both you and the book you are searching for. In a wildly brief period—ten, fifteen years—the nature of discovery has changed, and will change further still. So, at home, I like to have no clear path through my books, even one as simple as alphabetizing. 


The only slight system I allow my books is between the living room and the office. In the living room are the books I have read and liked, sometimes loved, but have no reason to return to. They almost slide into the category of decoration, dusty and dead. Using books for their visual warmth, to anchor a room, is a rotten sin against all the life and sweat within their pages. (Remember the owl-eyed man in The Great Gatsby, marveling at Gatsby’s phony library? “What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too–didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?”) And so my affection for the books in my living room is run through with the thinnest tendril of dread, as I am not doing them proper justice.


My office shelf is where all the vitality can be found. It holds the books I can’t live without, the ones that taught me how to write and that I continue to learn and steal from. If the books in the living room are my past, these books are my present. The office shelf also holds the future—books I haven’t read. They are what I hope to learn, full of unknown promise. 


This photo is from my office. You can tell by the spines which books belong to the present and which to the future.   







Sophie McManus is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Unfortunates, which was a Barnes & Noble 2015 Great Writers Discover Award Finalist, was shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, long listed for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, and named a notable book or must-read by The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Time, Paste, and Time Out New York among others. Her work has appeared in American Short Fiction, O, Tin House, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Saltonstall Foundation, and the Jentel Foundation. She was born and raised in New York City and teaches writing in Brooklyn, New York.



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