Over the years, there’s one item I’ve collected more than any other: books.
They slowly piled up around my apartment, until I made the decision to do what would’ve once been unthinkable — to get rid of some of them.
A lot of them, actually. It was a painful activity, but with the potential for an international move in the future, it seemed unreasonable to hang onto ones that I wouldn’t be able to bring with me. Better to let you go now, I thought, holding back tears as I gently placed volume after volume on my neighborhood’s free library shelf. You’ll find someone else who loved you as much as I did.
What was left after the purge were my favorites, truly precious ones that would’ve destroyed me to part with. Instead of haphazard stacks that took over every corner in my home, my collection now consisted of two relatively organized shelves. With this newfound organization, I could see a theme around the books that remained; a majority are novels that are set in places that I’ve lived.
Not all of my remaining books are set in a place that I once called home — I have a few favorite authors that penned their books in locations I’ve never set foot in — but when I peruse my bookshelf I can see the history of my life, of where I’ve been and how I felt about being there.
I have a handful of books set in New York City; they’re for days when I miss the energy of the city and feel nostalgic about the life I had there. They take me back to the rush of early morning subway rides, of everything bagels thick with veggie cream cheese, of summer weekends spent on Chelsea rooftops.
There’s one book for Chicago. I crack that one open rarely, but every once in a while, I get sentimental and I dive back into a city I once loved. I read about the corrupt politics and brutal winters I’m so familiar with, and the sense of longing I feel surprises me. This feeling is always fleeting; it lasts until I reach the last page, and I’m jolted back to reality as I remember how much I loathed living in the Midwest.
I have no books about Seattle — just like I have no desire to go back there again.
My San Francisco collection mainly consists of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, along with a few other essay collections. I pull them off the shelf on the days I feel disappointed in the place I currently call home, and I let them take me to a happier version of this city. One day, I know they’ll remind me of all the quirks of living in the Bay Area, those little things that I’ll miss once I leave.
And then there’s my row of Miami books, which takes up most of the space on my shelf.
When I lived there, I never found myself reading books set in Miami — to be fair, it’s a city that’s not often seen in the literary world. But ever since I moved away, they’ve become my favorites.
Carl Hiaasen, Jonathan Escoffery, Brian Antoni: their books are the ones I revisit the most. They’re filled with eccentric characters and plotlines that would seem ridiculous — if they weren’t set in South Florida, a place where anything goes. They transport me back to humid evenings and beachside mornings, and as I flip the pages I always find myself thinking, this is home.
I still read books that are set in places I haven’t lived in, of course. That’s what my pile of library books mainly consists of; I enjoy reading about places that I’d never want to call home, and I often try to read a novel or two that’s set in a location I’m about to travel to. After all, the point of reading is exploration; it can be a form of travel, a way for you to go somewhere new through the written word.
The books that have earned their place on my shelf, however, are the ones I share a history with. When I read them, I’m taken back to the places where I once lived, and the person that I was when I lived there.
They’ll stay with me as I continue to move, because I never know when I’ll find myself missing a place — and while you can’t always go home, a book can bring you there.