My students are selfie experts; somehow, through practice, they have discovered the perfect angle, the right light, the exact method to fit ten people into one frame—while still managing to make their head look normal-sized. In those fleeting snapshots, they capture the essence of who they are (or at times who they want to be), if only for a second.
I believe that the books we read can serve as small photographs of our hopes, dreams, desires, and curiosities. They provide a snapshot of who we were, who we are, or who we want to become.
As a final project, my AP Literature and Composition students completed an “ideal bookshelf,” inspired by the book My Ideal Bookshelf and a quick write I completed in Penny Kittle’s summer class two years ago. The assignment was relatively simple—create your own ideal bookshelf of the books that “represent you—the books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favorite favorites” (La Force xi). Since this is an AP Literature class, I added a twist—I wanted students to stock their shelves with books that not only transformed them as a person, but also developed them as a reader.
As each student presented on their shelf, they transformed from self-assured seniors to wide-eyed children who relayed the story of the first book they had ever fallen in love with. Many of them spoke of how they either found or developed their passion for art,
coaching, theatre, computers, and physics through books they had found over 18 years. The books they listed did more than just challenge them as readers; these books had the power to inspire, entertain, and heal. As Claudia wrote about The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, “I have no real idea what is so special about it, but I’m not going to question its magical powers when it does so much good for me.”
What I loved most is how these shelves found life through details; Julia’s shelf held her drawing notebook, Cam’s his favorite cookbook, and Payton’s was adorned with her grandmother’s locket, which she uses as a bookmark. Some shelves were neat and orderly, perfectly stacked, while others, like Sammie’s were a bit more scattered. As Sammie put it, “I don’t know what I want to do as a profession; I am still figuring it out. That partially explains the disarray that is my bookshelf. I couldn’t decide which would be more practical, stacking or leaning. The result is a bookshelf with a little bit of both.”
As my seniors complete the next three weeks and begin the process of preparing for college, I want them to walk away with the writing and analytical skills we’ve honed all year, but more than anything, I want them to remember why they fell in love with reading in the first place. I want them to question why books are powerful and understand that the universality of a novel’s message can change readers. I want them to read for knowledge and depth and challenges, but I also want them to accept that not everything needs to be analyzed, dissected or picked apart. In fact, sometimes we read for escapism, for love, for adventure. For many, this might be the last English class they take. Hopefully, it is only the start of a lifetime of reflective reading and ideal bookshelves.