At dinner I surprise my family with my response to the question: what is your biggest pet peeve?
“People who borrow my books and don’t return them.”
My children’s eyes widen more than a little. This is a far cry from the generosity I preach but I am unapologetic. When I think about my books, orphaned around town, I feel anxious. I’ve tried a variety of approaches to ensure their return: “I’d love it back when you’re done. Chang-rae Lee is one of my favorite writers,” or “My neighbor wants to borrow Forest Dark when you’re finished,” but really, I just want the book back on the shelf next to Nicole Krauss’ other gorgeous novels.
I have friends who religiously end the day with a glass of wine. Books are where I return to myself even as I am escaping to the steamy streets of Madras and Addis Ababa, or circling a widow’s walk in Nantucket. When my husband is away, I bring my bedside collection under the blankets as if I might warm the wet Venetian streets of Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark.
How do you have time to read so much? people ask.
How do you have time to watch “The Voice”? I do not ask this but I do catch myself offering to lend them Paul Auster’s Invisible, as if the narrative’s structure and questions of identity will fortify them against a vacuous diet of reality TV. I make a point to write my full name inside Invisible, including my maiden name, in hope that my identity will be the key to the book’s return.
Joan Didion wrote of the necessity of journaling as a way to keep in touch with “the people we used to be… so they don’t come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 am of a bad night” (Slouching Toward Bethlehem: Essays). My journal record is spotty at best. I know my ghosts crouch like mad dogs, and I will be hearing from them soon enough. In the meantime, I keep a catalog of the books, just a list of the title and author, nothing else. But when I turn now in my desk chair to scan the shelves behind me, I find my journal: Lolita, Speak Memory, and Invitation to a Beheading– the Slavic Lit. course, my junior year, the animated lecturer with wild hair, pacing the length of our desk, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood-that awful hotel tower near LAX, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller (the second time)- when I was sick with the swine flu, As It Was Written by Sujatha Hampton- late in the spring. It was still cold and snowy, and I was homesick for New England. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver- the hammock, the summer I was pregnant with my third child, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid- nearly 10 summers ago. I listened to the book on CD on a midnight mission to bring my homesick daughter back from gymnastics camp. I bought and read the book the next day.
My books, my constant bedfellows, crowding my shelves in no particular order, are as vital a record as the carefully-labeled family photo albums, dated with each child’s age, the themed birthday party, the ski trip, the soccer game, the dance recital. Milestones, celebrations, performances, trips, children and grandparents getting older. My own face older.
Recently, an English teacher at my son’s high school asked me to tutor students, and so I returned to my copy of Macbeth. If you doubt that we all live many lives, I invite you to pick up a book you read in middle school or high school. If you’re lucky, you have a book with your notes in the margin, the penciled echoes of the “people we used to be.”
My copy of Macbeth belonged to my mother’s uncle, Kenneth Mikkelsen, whose name is written in fountain pen, the “K” and “M” traced with flourish like the signatures of our founding fathers under glass. In Act One, Scene One, he wrote in the margin, “the foundation of words in imitation of natural something-or-other.” I can’t read the last bit. He played King Duncan in a school production. Then, my mother received the book and in a steady hand underlined “brainsickly” and “ravel’d sleave.” It is just like my mother, the smartest woman I know, to pick out these mouthy, provocative words. But I have written the most. Every page is littered with my ninth-grade commentary, asterisks and stars, exclamation points so I wouldn’t forget what I thought, where and when. And then, from the back slip four green note cards, and I again recognize my handwriting, larger, more confident. These are my notes from a college drama class and here, a different hand races across the card with an invitation to leave the library and go back to his dorm. On the card I titled, “Blood and Milk,” I see my husband’s irresistible offer, his questioning marks and below, my inked acceptance: “evil, secret, unknown, wicked.”