Events

Shelf-Actualization

Before I came to the Norwich Public Library, I spent a few days a week working for a local independent bookseller. It’s a lovely space, and I still pop in whenever I get the chance. If there’s a better way to spend the day than hanging around books and chatting with people, I don’t know about it.

One morning when I went to open the shop, an elderly man was already waiting out front in the cold. Now there’s a true book lover, I thought. He followed me up the steep staircase into the store, and we spent the next hour or so in intermittent conversation about stories and poems, encounters and ideas, travels both real and imagined. He ended up taking home a stack of volumes on topics as varied as birdwatching, architectural theory, and Theravada Buddhism.

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“You know,” he turned and said to me on his way out, “I’ll never get to read all the books I want to before I die.” At first I was taken aback–here we were having such a nice morning, and now suddenly he’s talking about death? Not knowing what else to do, I tried awkwardly to reassure him. “Oh! You’re not going to die,” I said absurdly; then, truly flustered, “You’re not old!” (He was probably in his late eighties.)

But then I realized: this man’s right; he won’t get to read all of the books he wants to before he dies. Neither will I, and neither will most book lovers. It’s a simple truth of loving books: for every book that you read, another dozen or so go on the list. There is no catching up.

And beyond being right, he wasn’t looking for reassurance. When I think of all of the things left on my list, it can start to feel a bit…morbidly overwhelming? (I suspect that I’m not the only one with this problem.) But once I’d gotten over my embarrassment that day in the store, I recognized that the man said what he said not ruefully, but with a twinkle in his eye. He seemed completely at peace with the notion that there were infinitely more ideas and books out there than he–than anyone–could absorb in a lifetime. In fact, he seemed energized by the sheer profusion of knowledge and creativity available to him, and he was continually seeking new things to read.

I think about this chance meeting a lot. It’s a great reminder to change my perspective whenever I’m feeling daunted.

At the library, we all know what it’s like to feel like you’re on the wrong side of a snowballing book roll. This month, we’re taking a collaborative approach to those ever-growing to-read lists. In the fiction room, you’ll find a display called Shelf-Actualization, where staff members reveal what books they’ve been meaning to read and why. By sharing those aspirations, we can breathe a bit of life into them, and maybe feel a tiny bit less burdened in the process.

We hope that you’ll get in on the action, too. As part of our month-long celebration of the humble Post-It, we’re leaving stacks of sticky notes all across the library. Use them to let us know what’s on your reading list (or to scribble, or to draw a mini-masterpiece). At the end of the month, we’ll put everyone’s work on display, creating a pixelated portrait of our community.

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Of course, it’s great if we end up getting to everything on our lists. But there’s something heartening about knowing that even if we don’t,our community will often pick up collectively where we as individuals leave off.