Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
By Roxanne Fequiere
Yanking the smooth black laces taut on each foot, I stood up, wiggled my toes, and shifted my weight. Glancing around the store, I spied a full-length mirror across the room—a good opportunity to see what walking in these shoes felt like. The black patent leather squealed softly with every step, which was to be expected, but a tautness at the balls of my feet gave me pause. I could already picture it: me, a few days from now, struggling to disguise the hobbling gait that had crept up on me after a few hours of “breaking them in”; then, months later, frustrated because those shoes never became as broken-in as I’d hoped.
I asked the shopgirl for the next size up as I turned to admire each oxford’s squat, lacquered wooden heel, the square toes and brass grommets. The design was clunky, intentionally so, which is what had drawn me to them in the first place. A pair of size nines materialized and I stepped into them, noting the extra space. A half size would have been ideal. These would allow for tights and thick socks, the shopgirl reasoned, and I thought of my mother, who probably would have said the same thing.
Suddenly, I realized what had brought me to this place. It was the last weekend of August, and a new job awaited me on Monday. I’d felt caught between excitement and anxiety, and without realizing it, gotten swept up in a stint of retail-fueled seasonal nostalgia. When I looked down at my feet, I realized I’d seen elements of these shiny, square-toed lace-ups many times before. I was buying school shoes.
It’s fitting that I find myself seeking out slightly more stylish versions of the same shoes I loathed as a student—with each passing year, my fondness for back-to-school season grows deeper.
As I write this, I feel the need to clarify: I’m nostalgic, not amnesic. I grew up in a household where high academic achievement was non-negotiable. While I enjoyed learning, my time in school is directly tied to an ever-wobbly sense of self-worth that remains stubbornly linked to my own warped pursuit of “excellence.” It’s that in-between time, in which the end of summer feels like a foregone conclusion and the daily grind of the school year has yet to set in, that I reserve warm, fuzzy feelings for.
Growing up, that special swath of the calendar was defined by even more reading than usual. There were books that had to be read and reported on by the first day of school, magazines to be scanned for aesthetic inspiration, catalogs to be torn apart for outfit planning purposes—the last task an especially useless one, considering I wore a uniform—all of which I tackled voraciously. In the absence of social media, there was the glittering possibility that I could show up on the first day of school after not seeing my peers for two months and be a completely new person.
Of course, by the time temperatures dipped and winter coats emerged from storage, the verdict was clear. September’s efforts had been sweet and valiant, but the same old me would have to suffice for another year. I could try to pull off the whole total transformation thing next year—and, like clockwork, I always did. I suppose I still do.
From the moment I began planning out this project, I knew I would tackle stories about school come September. I knew myself well enough to predict an annual wave of potent back-to-school nostalgia that would dovetail nicely with a series of books about crisp autumn air, hallowed halls, and cobblestoned campuses. Then again, authors are, by nature, not amnesic. A story that remains suspended in that hazy, pregnant pause preceding the school year would do a disservice to the actual success and failure and lessons that are the hard-won prizes of our formative years. The reality of school, the part I’m less likely to recall fondly, the part I’m looking forward to revisiting this month, takes place after the sparkle of the new year fades away. Like new shoes, we all have to be broken in a bit.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.