The ladder to the upper cache is shaky. The bits of dust are barely visible under the sunlight that sneaks in through the embroidered curtains. The antique wooden door is still shut. Carefully, I pull the handles, with the same pounding anticipation of unsealing a LEGO toy set.
I was 12 and secretly exploring my father’s bookshelf for the first time. Its existence piqued my curiosity for its relative inaccessibility; as a small child, the contents were too high to reach. The origin of my love for reading, as well as my journey to self-discovery, began with that first exploration into the bookshelf. It has only grown over the years.
I vividly recall how that afternoon in fourth grade, it was Tagore’s Stray Birds that seized my mind. The short, often single line poems aroused emotions that I had never been able to capture in words before: pity for the transient stay of joyful birds and disappointment for leaves who “flutter and fall with a sign,” waiting passively for decay. Later that day, I shyly confessed to my father of my trespass into his book collection. He was amused by my unusual curiosity and, instead of admonishing me, handed me Shelly’s A Verse on a Cat.
My continued interaction with the bookshelf evoked curiosity, both immediate and potential. Since my love for the piano has been solidified, my father tended to steer me towards humanity texts instead of books on stock markets and economic theories. Another time, I came across the Social Psychology tome, full of charts and graphs and cryptic words like “conformity” and “self-actualization.” It served as a puzzle. From the Black Sheep Effect, to the Stanford Prison Experiments, to memory encoding and retrieval, psychology became one of the full- blown interests of mine.
As I matured, I began to inspect what the bookshelf might have meant to my father. He majored in finance, but the majority of the bookshelf featured western classics and literature, some that were even illegal copies in China. While he felt working in finance was essential for a stable career, his bookshelf provided an outlet for his intellectual needs and passions. Every careful signature, note, and bookmark under each of the books’ covers testifies to his love of reading. Whenever I come across his notes in the margins, metaphysical musings on a line of poetry or reminders to research a topic, I am inspired to continue reaching deeper into more tomes and continue my path of discovery.
Here in Alabama, thousands of miles away from my father’s bookshelf, I’ve created my own bookshelf. It is an extension rather than a replica. At the center is a worn English Thesaurus that my father insisted that I keep, and it symbolizes my desire to discover the spatial, logical, and aesthetic relationships between words and concepts. From there, I have expanded the bookshelf in scope and depth. To train myself to be a faster critical thinker, I incorporated Being Logical and Asking the Right Questions. To satisfy my desire for cultural detail, I am currently reading The Temple of the Gold Pavilion, after being inspired by texts on Japanese garden landscaping last summer. Some books are recommendations of my peers, some were picked up over summer vacations. An indelible sense of suspense always exists as I gaze upon these texts with yet unknown content. My bookshelf is evolving, and with it, myself. “You cannot possibly read all the books here in your lifetime” jocularly said my father, my initiator, at a bookstore. At the age of 12, I felt an “unyielding” desire to conquer his books: to possess, understand, utilize these texts. But over the years, I have discovered reading can function in a more ethereal manner: it inspires me to design my own educational path and keeps my curiosity alive. I will continue to grow my bookshelf as I seek new sources of inspiration and introspection.
Charlie Zhang is a senior at Indian Springs School. As an amateur pianist, CD collector and book lover, he finished learning Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata and reading The Temple of the Golden Pavilion during his last year at Springs. His frequent essay topics include family dynamics and self-reflection. In Hangzhou, China, his family lives near a wetland national park — the perfect match for Charlie’s usually calm outlook and his peaceful household atmosphere.
Photograph by Sabra Rogers.