Book Shelf

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Summer reading is upon my children.

The Odyssey

Animal Farm

Of Mice and Men

I knew I had copies of these books, but I didn’t know where, so this morning I went looking.

I’ve gotten rid of my vinyl and my CDs (which I regret now, even though at the time, I had no idea I’d even be able to play them again). But not my books. Or my mother’s books, or even her great aunt’s Shakespeare collection, with her name and the date, 1894, handwritten on custom labels on the inside of each hard-bound play. My book collection keeps growing. After my grandparents died, I asked for my grandfather’s Joseph Conrad set, and the Robert Lewis Stevenson’s with their rough cut, time-yellowed pages, and beautiful hand drawn maps. No one else wanted them. But I remembered gazing at them in awe when I was little and visiting their wonderful house in Carlisle, PA. The books were on shelves on the second floor in the large space between the bedrooms, an extra room really, the perfect place to sit and read.

When I was old enough to ride the subway in NYC – twelve – I would grab random books off my mother’s shelf to read on my hour-long commute to ballet and later high school. In 7th grade, I swiped The Painted Bird, by Jerzy Kosinski. It was engrossing and wildly inappropriate. That paperback is still with me. It has lived in North Carolina and three different houses in Los Angeles. Now it’s on shelves that are 104-years-old, in a room called an inglenook. It’s like all those books needed the right place to land and here they are, alongside books I read in college and books I read last week. My husband complains whenever we move about the weight and volume of these books. Do I really need them? Will I ever read them again?

The answer is yes. In the past few years I’ve re-read The Handmaids Tale, another one I swiped from my mother when I was sixteen; The Secret History, which was mine, Less than Zero, also mine. Often when I’m writing, I have an urge to read a passage I recall. I’m only 5’4” so I keep an antique child’s school chair nearby as a stepping stool. I climb up in search of whatever it is I’m looking for only to get completely lost remembering reading all of the other books on the shelf. It makes sense that Alice falls down a hole lined with books – it’s the ultimate rabbit’s hole.

Now, my children get to read from the same copies, with my 8th grade handwriting (much neater than now, by the way) and tidy underlines. It doesn’t always work out. My treasured Narnia collection fell apart when my son read it and even more tragic, my mother’s hardback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird split in two. Also, the print was tiny in paperbacks published in the 80s, the pages were small, the paper so weak that pages crack when turned. Sometimes I have to invest in a new copy, even though I’ve gone to the trouble of transporting the old one so many times.

This morning, I started with my son’s bookshelf, looking for The Odyssey, which he has to read. And just like always, I was instantly swept up in memories. There were all the books I’d read to him as a child, the words of which instantly filled my head as soon as I saw the titles on their spines, like Stranger in the Woods: “Come see! Come See!” All the Harry Potter books were there. I read them aloud to him starting in kindergarten. Now he’s almost 17. I found my copy of Animal Farm, but another student’s name is written inside, an older kid who’d passed it down. The teacher was the same though and his name was written inside, too. I was instantly transported back to that very 8th grade classroom in downtown Brooklyn. I could see Mr. Norregaard lecturing. We made masks of our favorite characters out of foam. Mine was Napoleon the pig. I’d spray-painted it pink and when I wore it over my head, the fumes made me high.

I found Of Mice and Men – a new copy I’d purchased for my son in 8th grade and decided to read it this summer too, since I never have. I will finally fill that gap. (There are many!)

On the next shelf down, I found the ashes of our first dog, whom we all desperately loved. They’re in a velvet box. I remembered how my son begged to keep them in his room. There’s a picture of her in her prime taped to the top and a picture of my husband and me in our 20s, holding Marley when we’d first rescued her in North Carolina. We’re on the beach and look impossibly young. We’re smiling, in love with our puppy. We look so happy in that photo that’s held in place with a rubber band. I know we fought then too. I touched my smiling face in the picture, trying to connect it to myself now.

I found Beowulf, another gap in my English degree, but not The Odyssey and remembered that I never did buy a new copy of Homer’s epic poem. It was Beowulf I’d bought, because of the movie. I wanted to read it aloud to my son, but never did.

My copy of The Odyssey was on the top shelf in the inglenook. I bought when I was in college and mistakenly chose to write my thesis on Ulysses. The price tag is still on it. $5.95 at Shakespeare&Co. The back cover look likes it was gnawed on by a rat, which is possible, since the books spent many months trapped in boxes when we moved into this house thirteen years ago. We did major construction and yes, rats got in and chewed the edges of our books. I don’t remember going in to Manhattan to buy it, but I can picture the inside of the store and myself tracking it down, likely wearing opaque black tights.

This is why I will never part with these books. I need them. Even the ones with rat bites. A few years ago I culled the collection to make room for new ones. One of the books I parted with was Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, on which the musical Cabaret was based. I got rid of it because it stymied me my senior year of college when my seminar professor gave us the trickiest essay question ever for our final exam: Write an essay on a book we read for a class you missed. That’s right, the book from a class you cut. We read one book a week in that seminar and met one time a week. I was a “try hard,” as my daughter would say, and read every book, except one. And attended every class, except one. The book was Berlin Stories and my bullshit essay dropped me from an A to A- for the semester. I got rid of it because seeing it made me mad. Every other student had 2 to 4 books to choose from. I wasn’t the intended victim of his essay question – I was a casualty. But then last year my son’s Jesuit high school put on the most surprisingly excellent production of Cabaret, and sure enough, once again, I regretted not reading that book. I looked for it for a few hours one day then I remembered dropping it off at Out of The Closet with What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

My books – even the ones that are missing – tell the story of who I am. There are books from boyfriends and best friends, some written by family members, some signed. Some pristine, some tattered, some chewed on by rats.

My daughter is only 2 ½ years younger than my son, but when it comes to books, it’s like she’s from another generation. She doesn’t even have a bookshelf in her room. Her school has everything on an iPad now, so except for the picture books she did love as a toddler which are on the bottom shelf in the Inglenook, she will never stare at a row of books and relive moments from her past. She won’t get to time travel — everything she reads is stored in a cloud. Which is tidier and lighter, but not the same. This summer she will read my tattered copy of Animal Farm and the brand new Of Mice and Men. I’m not buying them for Kindle this summer. It’s only two short books. I’m not buying the Audible. I want her to hold the book and wonder why I underlined whatever sentence I underlined in Animal Farm and maybe even underline her own favorite passages in Of Mice and Men. Then forever, when she sees these books, she’ll remember this summer before high school, the boyfriend, the boredom, me screaming at her for stringing a bra up the flagpole in front of our house. In twenty or thirty or fifty years, she will see these books — even someone else’s copies, maybe her children’s? And time travel like I did today.

 

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