A Short Biography of My Bookshelves by Lee Houck

The first furniture of my adult life was purchased on Steinway Street in Astoria, in January 1998.  My parents had driven me from Tennessee to Queens, where some friends had rented an apartment—four-bedrooms, one for each of us.  Everything I would carry from my teenage years into my twenties was packed into the mauve-red Ford station wagon.  Clothes, a horde of CDs in Case Logic binders, a giant gray desktop computer, a pillow.

  On arrival, they bought me a twin mattress, a desk, a lamp, and—most importantly, maybe, who cares about the mattress—they bought me a wooden, gray-speckled bookcase.  The bookcase came from the basement of the Goodwill store near 34th Avenue; I don’t remember what it cost.  We ate lunch at the Twin Donut at the corner of Broadway and 38th Street.  The Twin Donut is no longer there, but I still have the bookcase.

Since that first one in 1998, I have bought bookcases and shelving units from IKEA, from Best Quality Furniture, from Gothic Cabinet Craft, from Target.  I have inherited bookcases from my high school prom date, one of those early Astoria roommates and her girlfriend, a bookbinder, Materials for the Arts, and an off-the-grid socialist from Vermont.  Once my father made me a set of shelves that he shipped, disassembled, with a pouch of nuts and screws and a coil of wire cross-bracing to keep it sturdy.

A few years ago I made a rule that I would not allow myself to buy any more furniture that was specifically designed to hold books.  Currently I have eight bookcases in my Brooklyn apartment, my boyfriend has five more—all this accounts for about 94 feet of books.  Janette Turner Hospital takes up 1.25 feet.

  Barbara Kingsolver 1.5 feet.  Jim Grimsley 0.9 feet.  The boyfriend has several feet of Star Wars-related volumes.  My favorite writers keep writing new books; I keep discovering old books.  Sometimes I find a volume that needs me—that’s how it feels—a forlorn first edition already tucked into a shiny Brodart cover, no markings, not price-clipped, boldly signed by the author on the title page.

The shelves are full.  There are books on the tops of the bookcases, there are books shoved in horizontally wherever they fit.  On some of the wider shelves there are books behind books.  We have taken to making foot-high stacks that sit underneath the living room coffee table.

When I was a child, one of my favorite books was Frederick, by Leo Lionni, which is about a mouse who lives with his mouse community in a barn.  As winter approaches, the mice begin to collect grain and build warm sleeping areas.  Frederick decides to instead collect words and colors, because as he knows, the winter is gray and difficult, and the mice will need more than food to keep their souls awake.  When no one else can, Frederick remembers the spring.

When I got a little older, one of my favorite books to take out from the middle school library was The Encyclopedia of the Occult—my name appeared on the circulation card probably a dozen times.

  There were entries for The Bell Witch, alien abduction, Tarot, alchemy.  But the most compelling chapter was the one on Spontaneous Combustion.  It was mostly older women, sitting at home in front of the television.  They lived alone, their children had grown and moved away.  Then, for no reason that anyone could understand or explain, leaving only stockings and eyeglasses behind, they exploded into flames.

I was sixteen when one of my English teachers handed me some photocopies as I left her class, folded, pulled from her purse like they were a secret.  They were dark in the center of the paper, bright fields of white, spotted here and there—that’s how copies looked back then, the book’s spine pressed against the glass.  They still smelled of toner.  “Here,” she said, and nothing else.  I got the message—that like medicine, or custom shoes, these poems might be the right dose at the right time.

  It was Adrienne Rich, and my life was changed.

“Find others,” Adrienne wrote in her poem Yom Kippur 1984, and so I began to.

I found Andrew Holleran by way of Gary Indiana.  Octavia Butler via Anne Rice via Thomas Harris.  Paul Russell through Peter Cameron.  Jewel Gomez through Dorothy Allison, all because of Leslie Feinberg.  Donna Tartt via Katharine Dunn, believe it or not.  Someone gave me a paperback of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X.  Coupland led to Jay McInerney, who led to Bret Easton Ellis.  And it was Ellis who pointed me to Joan Didion.  In the hallway bookcase, Didion takes up 16 inches.  In the living room she takes up 20.  Extra Didion paperbacks—reading copies—I keep in the bedroom.  

We used to have cats, and I always thought “If there’s a fire, first the cats, then the Didion.”  The cats got old: one at 12 years, died of cancer; one at 18, died of old age, one at 17 died of what anyone could only understand to be a slow, intractable sadness.

So, God Forbid—

But—if you see me, eyebrows singed, barefoot, running down the street, clutching my first edition of Beloved, you’ll understand.  Or maybe it’s Vestal McIntyre’s You Are Not the One, which he inscribed to me at Florent over Lime Surprises on the snowiest night of 2007.  Or the books Larry Brown signed before he died.  Or Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance inscribed in the year of my birth: “To Ray & Mark, from Curt and Jim.”  Honestly, it’s probably the signed first of Run River.

It’s getting out of hand.  But, I have to have these things around me.  How else will I know who I am?

Some years ago I started to understand that my books were less a collection of stories than a self-portrait curated over a lifetime.  The books said something to me, or about me, that I couldn’t say to or about myself.  They are a mirror and kaleidoscope at the same time, spread out across my apartment.  Without them, I cannot say or reflect what they do.

The Frederick, the Adrienne Rich, the Encyclopedia of the Occult I just bought used for three dollars, and everything else.  I have them all, still.


Lee Houck’s work includes short stories, essays and poems appearing in a wide range of print publications including Sixfold, Trunk Books, The Outrider Review, and online at The Nervous Breakdown and The Billfold.  His debut novel, YIELD, was the recipient of the Project Queerlit Award, and was a First Saturdays selection at the Brooklyn Museum. He teaches fiction writing for the Ditmas Writing Workshops. To sign up for his next Short Story Workshop (beginning April 19th in Brooklyn), go to www.ditmaswritingworkshops.com