Writer in Residence

On Book Collecting

By Leslie Shimotakahara

My favourite place to write is lying on an overstuffed grey sofa, in what was once our attic. My propped-up knees, with a firm cushion over top, form a kind of makeshift desk, on which my notebook perches. Across from me stretches a wall of bookshelves. Ever since childhood, I dreamed of having a library. When a number of years ago, my husband, Chris, and I moved into our narrow rowhouse in the west end of Toronto, we decided to forgo a second bedroom in favour of a library, equipped with pullout couch (for the occasional guest). There’s something so soothing and relaxing to the brain about being surrounded by one’s books. Chris, who’s an architect, designed this set of bookshelves, and we got our friend to build it out of fibreboard. He found the old ladder for us at a barn sale.


Unpacking our books took a rather long time. Although we’d certainly had bookshelves in our previous apartment, our joint collection of books had grown in the course of the move, because I’d pulled boxes out of storage. Organizing and arranging everything in some semblance of a coherent system seemed daunting at first. But gradually, various groupings of books came into focus: sometimes by genre, other times by geography or aesthetic movement or temporal period. Or by less definable whims and caprices. Discovering how different and far-flung our reading tastes are was a big part of the fun, the exploration. Chris has a hunger for philosophy, history, architectural theory, and experimental fiction, while I prefer realist novels and short story collections, anthropology, and history (primarily when it pertains to the historical fiction I’m working on, if I’m honest with myself), as well as cultural theory books that remind me of my student days.

As we forged ahead grouping books in provisional piles, the temptation to flip through and revisit old friends or make new friends with the other’s treasures proved irresistible. What a delight to examine underlined passages and marginalia scribbled by our younger selves. I think perhaps there can be no greater intimacy than reading your partner’s little notes at the edges of dogeared pages and notebooks kept during a formative period of life. Walter Benjamin’s famous essay about unpacking his library came to mind, not surprisingly; we both had a copy of Illuminations from our undergrad days. Benjamin’s revealing discussion about how his attempt to unpack and categorize his books evokes a strange mood of anticipation and “springtide of memories,” which borders on chaos, is something that I think many book lovers and writers can probably relate to.

I certainly can. Favourite books are, in a way, a means of preserving or freezing moments of my prior selves. A novel or short story collection that I adored twenty years ago may be one that I simply want to hold in my hands, but not reread today — certainly not in its entirety — because its material existence is more about keeping alive my memory of my initial encounter with the text. And the person I was, back then. And other aspects of my life during these prior periods are also preserved, like Polaroids in a scrapbook. Tessa Hadley’s Accidents in the Home will forever bring to mind a certain used bookstore in the Helmholtzplatz neighbourhood of Berlin, where I lived for a year and a half during grad school. Equally attached to this book is my memory of how during that time I was rapidly falling out of love with my dissertation and just sitting in cafes reading far too many novels, or wandering the damp, cold streets and exploring galleries and theatres. I felt fated to finish my doctorate and seek an academic post, because that was what I’d set out to do, yet how desperately I wanted to swerve off course and pursue a different kind of life.

“You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids,” Benjamin writes. Certainly, one of the saddest periods of my life was when I got rid of all my books. By that point, I’d decided to quit academia, to leave the small, liberal arts university in Nova Scotia where I’d been teaching American literature for the past two years. For various reasons, I’d completely burnt out and discovered I wasn’t suited to be a professor, so I was packing my bags to move home to Toronto. Once there, I would try to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, but right then I was enjoying a good wallow. The bookshelves in my office in the English department were crammed with the books I’d brought with me. Although I hadn’t transported all my books, I’d brought a good many of them. Too many. They’d be a costly pain to ship back to Toronto.

One afternoon, during my office hours at the end of the semester, a merry, grey-haired couple knocked on my door, with empty suitcases in tow. They were a husband and wife team whose business was to buy up and resell used books. On the spot, I decided to sell them everything. Suddenly, my shelves were shockingly bare, book-less. The feeling of lightness and liberation lasted a little while, but soon after I’d moved back to Toronto, I found myself once again craving to be surrounded by books. So I gradually began my book collection anew, repurchasing many of my old favourites, and happiness increasingly returned to me. 

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Leslie Shimotakahara's memoir, The Reading List, won the Canada-Japan Literary Prize, and her fiction has been shortlisted for the KM Hunter Artist Award. She has written two critically acclaimed novels, After the Bloom and Red Oblivion, published by Dundurn Press. Red Oblivion, released last fall, was The Word On The Street’s Book of the Month for January, included in the 49th Shelf’s “Great Books for the Moment,” and praised in Kirkus Review for showing “virtuosity in this subtle deconstruction of one family’s tainted origins.” Leslie has a PhD in American Literature from Brown University. She and her husband live in the west end of Toronto.