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In Show Your Shelf we ask bibliophiles to share how their books make their space feel like home.

“I always feel like I should be more well read and have a bigger book collection—just walls and walls of books,” says Zeba Blay. The senior culture editor at HuffPost (who is currently in the process of writing her first book, Carefree Black Girls, out in fall 2021) imagined her future home would have the kind of sprawling shelves she saw again and again on design sites and social media. But when she moved into her first apartment in Jersey City, New Jersey, she decided against it, instead removing the door from a small, awkward closet, painting its shelves, and using it as her own miniature library. “Once I did that, I felt like I was really able to start building a collection of books that was meaningful to me,” she explains.

Now she shares a larger apartment, still in Jersey City, with her boyfriend, and she scatters piles of books throughout the space. “I’ve made my collection into an extension of my home, rather than something that I’m showing off,” she says.

Here, Blay shares her thoughts on color-coding (“It’s not that deep”), the one book she always recommends to friends, and why she prefers stacks to shelves. 

Zeba BlayPin It
Courtesy of Zeba Blay

Big Bookcases Aren’t Everything

Under our TV are the books that are my tried-and-true—ones that I’ve read a bunch of times and really love and want to be on display. We have a little reading nook that I’ve recently turned into a writing space with my desk, and that’s where I keep books that I read when I need inspiration or information. Next to the couch and next to our bed we have our current reads—I’m always reading more than one book at a time because my mind is constantly racing. I can’t stay on just one thing. I recently spent a weekend with my friend Fariha [Róisín], and she gifted me a book called Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, which I’m excited to start. I’m currently reading The Chiffon Trenches, and I’m also in the process of reading The Body Keeps Score, which is a book about trauma and how it comes up in your life. 

For or Against Color-Coding?

It’s not that deep—it’s a pretty thing to look at. If I’m going to have my books out, I like for them to be aesthetically pleasing, and that doesn’t make me any less intellectual. In our bedroom, I just wanted to be playful, so we have some books lined up showing the pages instead of the spines. This is fun, guys.

The Books That Inspire Her

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Courtesy of Zeba Blay

The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison. I’m writing my first book right now, and it’s incredibly scary. In my career as a writer, I’ve really struggled with centering myself in my writing, because I’ve often been made to feel or allowed myself to feel like the standard of a good writer is someone who looks at things objectively. But in this world, objectivity is often couched with whiteness. Anytime I feel the need to write about something from the perspective of a Black woman, I think, Oh ,my God, is that going to be seen as irrelevant to the argument? But Morrison’s writing has really made me comfortable with the fact that my experiences are just as valid in the conversation as anything else. There is something inspiring about reading books by my friends, too—if they can do it, I can do it. I have How to Cure a Ghost by Fariha Róisín, and Freshwater and Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, and I find myself coming back to them when I’m stressed and just have to close my laptop.

Getting Rid of Those Books From College 

I studied literature as an undergrad, and you don’t really realize that you’re indoctrinated with this point of view, until you sit back and look at your bookshelf with all your books from college and realize they’re all [by] white men. I have books by Samuel Beckett and Wilkie Collins, and that’s great because part of being a person is being able to read all these different perspectives, but it’s like, damn, bro—you don’t have enough of the Black canon and the Asian canon and the Brown canon. I went through a big purge a few years ago. I was such a Shakespeare nerd in high school, and I had multiple copies of every play and the sonnets. Eventually I had to say, Wait, why do I have four copies of Richard III? What’s going on here? For every book I removed, I added something new to my library that felt like it should be a part of my tool kit. I’m a Taurus, so I love to accumulate things, but my boyfriend is much more minimal, so living with him has been helpful in keeping my collection intentional. I’ve given books away to my friends, and our building has a little spot in the laundry room where people leave books. 

Childhood Comforts 

I probably have a hundred of the original Baby-Sitters Club books from when I was younger, but for the most part, they’re at my mom’s house. In my current collection, I have Kristy’s Big Day, which covers when her mom got remarried after being divorced. That was so “whoa” for me because my parents were divorced. I also have Sea City, Here We Come, which was one of the specials where they would go on a trip and there would be drama. I loved the Claudia books because she was my idol. I have a few Nancy Drews and The Royal Diaries. I hope one day if I do have a child, they will get these ridiculous books that seem so dated to them, because they were even dated when I read them. 

Sharing Stories With a Significant Other

stool with books stacked on topPin It
Courtesy of Zeba Blay

My boyfriend is Indian—he’s trying to educate himself more on Black Lives Matter, and I’m trying to educate myself more on what’s happening in the Brown community. He has also opened my eyes to how many resources are online, and how many books you can find for free. Most of the books in the apartment are mine, but he’s a musician and filmmaker, so he has a lot of books on music theory and cinematography, so we get to dip into each other’s worlds. He recently read The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, and he read it aloud to me one night—it’s nice to be able to share a story, especially in this time. 

Her Constant Recommendation

A book that is very close to my heart is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It’s an almost-1,000-page fantasy novel about magic in England. It’s one of the most immersive reading experiences I’ve ever had. It gave me the same feeling I had being 11 and reading Harry Potter. I first read it in high school. The first copy I ever had was from around 2006, and it’s completely in tatters—the first pages are actually gone. I know I’ll have this book forever—it’s healing to me.

Another book that a friend lent me and now I want to lend to a bunch of people is Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong, which is a beautifully written, instructive book of essays. Surpassing Certainty by Janet Mock is also a big one.

How Books Make a Home

I have anxiety, I have depression, I’m a Taurus—all of those things together have led to me making my home, now more than ever, my safe space. It’s really about creating an environment that feels healing, and the books are a part of that—even the ones that are just chilling there and I haven’t looked at in a year. They make the space feel like home, and they make it feel like me. I really do believe in energy, and an object as banal as a book has energy, too. With everything going on with the pandemic and this discourse about racism in America, it’s so important for me, especially as someone who deals with mental illness and who is a Black woman in America, to have this space where I can feel free.

Introducing Domino’s new podcast, Design Time, where we explore spaces with meaning. Each week, join editor-in-chief Jessica Romm Perez along with talented creatives and designers from our community to explore how to create a home that tells your story. Listen now and subscribe for new episodes every Thursday.

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