by Dave Wheeler
Our new display in the center of the bookstore is inspired by a fantastic little collaboration between artist Jane Mount, editor Thessaly La Force, and a fabulous array of authors: My Ideal Bookshelf. The book pairs a paragraph or two written by the likes of Patti Smith or David Sedaris or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Jennifer Egan about important, formative books they’ve read and loved, with a corresponding painting comprised of those books on a shelf, spines out.
Being book lovers ourselves, the whole Elliott Bay staff took to the challenge with, if I may say, remarkable aptitude. You’ll see quite a wide and varied assortment of books cherished by the booksellers here. It gives a unique perspective on each of us as individuals. Vulnerable, even, when you consider how these books have shaped our lives. There are, I’m sure, plenty of stories to tell about the when and why of each title.
Lots of people talk about The Catcher in the Rye. Foremost, for sure, of J D Salinger’s work — at least, as far as ubiquity goes. But it’s funny how conversations about The Catcher in the Rye often turn to, “I found it at just the right time” or “Oh, I read that too late to appreciate.” Coming-of-age novels are often thought of as time-sensitive. Read Catcher at sixteen? You’ll love it. Read it, as I did, at twenty-two, and you might shrug it off. Adolescent angst may have the shortest expiration date.
As I picked books for my ideal bookshelf, I wondered about Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. I read it multiple times in middle school, but would I care so much if I tried reading it now? My interest in Chuck Palahniuk’s novels has certainly waned since I was seventeen, but Invisible Monsters still made it onto the display. Why? Because I remember its transgressive angst impacted me probably in the same way Salinger was impacting some of my peers.
I believe it’s the result of certain books finding us at the right times; they become touchstones to different eras of our lives.
For me, Palahniuk wrote all over my high school experience. I wasn’t so much an outcast as just one who drifted to the outermost valence of social concern. I had friends but just kept to myself for the most part. Not that I minded; it gave me plenty of time to read. And what I read were some of the most colorful and gonzo stories about misfits you can imagine.
Invisible Monsters stands out now as paramount, I think, because the disfigured supermodel, the trans woman, and the rapidly aging heartthrob subverted any expectations about fiction I had grown to rely on. The form leapt from page to nonsequential page. The narrator was as unreliable as my parents’ modem. I’d never had a story trick me so many times. And I loved it.
It’s hard to say, now, if I, as an adult, would feel the same way. Harder, too, to say if high schoolers today would find anything compelling about Palahniuk with all the Orwellian dystopias overflowing the bookshelves.
Maybe I missed the point of the ideal bookshelf by filling it with a book or three I’m not sure I’d read again if marooned on a deserted island. But that’s kind of the fun of it, too. For me, “ideal” meant a book for all current and former iterations of my self. For someone else, “ideal” might mean books for all time — past, present, and future.
But now I wonder, what would your ideal bookshelf look like?