On Books, On the Occasion of Rescuing My Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am blotting a mass-market paperback edition of Neverwhere with a Lysol wipe.  The cover is bleached and crazed, delicate enough that I fear it might fall apart in my hands.  It is in worse shape than many of the books in the box, but its loss is not a foregone conclusion.  It would be faster and easier to replace it via Thriftbooks — a mere $3.22.  Yet I proceed in the methodical task of salvaging it, with the sentimentality (or pretension, many would say), of the compulsive reader.  This is not just a copy of Neverwhere, this is my copy of Neverwhere.

For a week, moldy boxes of books have littered the kitchen counter of the skinny rowhouse I occupy with J, my partner of four years.  Recurring sewage issues in the basement have prompted our landlord to arrange for a plumber to jackhammer into the foundation, and me to finally tackle a project that has been gnawing at me for nearly a decade.

The oldest books in these boxes have crossed the country with me three times.  When I became homeless, although I left furniture, clothing, and other belongings behind without a second thought, I couldn’t bring myself to abandon my books to an unknown fate.  So, they came with me.  Eventually, I was offered a shed to store them in, shared with another woman’s belongings.  I accepted, and naively believed that they would be fine in open-topped cardboard boxes, covered with a tarp.  Some months later, the woman sharing the shed moved…and without telling me, removed the tarp.  The shed was also, as it turned out, about as much of a barrier as Swiss cheese.  When it came time to finally move into a real house again, I would find my books waterlogged in the leaky structure from a few unseasonal California rains, infested with spiderwebs, roaches, and mouse droppings.

Reader, I cried.

The worst off of the boxes were completely unsalvageable — rotted entirely through, furred completely with black mold so thick, the covers couldn’t even be read, or were eaten away.  I was unable to take an inventory of what I had lost; could only toss those boxes into a dumpster.  The quality of those remaining varied — hundreds of books in dozens of boxes.  All I could do was load them up and say “I’ll think about it tomorrow”.  That same year, I cleaned up somewhere between half to two-thirds of the boxes, the nicest ones that had miraculously escaped much damage, and only needed a little wiping and blow-drying to make them presentable.  The ones that seemed like they would need…more intensive care, I decided to save for the proverbial rainy day.

Now, 7 years later, that day has finally come.  The remaining books have been carted from garage to garage with me, finally coming to rest in a damp Pittsburgh basement.  J estimates there are 10 boxes.  (This will later be revised to 15.  And then 18 when he discovers 3 more that the plumber has moved behind the water heater, to forge a pathway.)  He seems skeptical of the endeavor (“no, really!  I can save them!” I protest in a fervent, slightly demented tone to his stoic face), but gamely carts a few boxes a day upstairs for me.

* * * * *

J does love reading.  He reads graphic novels, philosophy books, Star Wars novelizations, and anything to do with Batman.  He had a large single bookcase of his own when we moved in together, but I’m afraid mine have engulfed it.  The spare bedroom in the skinny rowhouse has been turned into a library, rather than a guest room.  He doesn’t seem to mind — I think he likes the idea of being surrounded by books, even if his literary interests are fairly more targeted than mine.  I have given up on recommending books to him.  He doesn’t read mine.  After a lot of begging, pleading, and cajoling, he plodded through exactly one chapter of A Wrinkle in Time (the first novel I ever read, age 6, a gift from my great-aunt), before putting it down and forgetting about it.  He did not even read my book until after we’d lived together for two years (which was peachy by me — once he finally did, he was overly affectionate and sweet to me for a few days.  I was convinced it was because he felt sorry for me, and I told him to knock it off, and then things went back to normal.  It’s not that I mind affection, but it wasn’t like him; I felt pitied — which he claims was not the case, and while I believe him, the feeling irritated me.)

The shelves of our library are already overstuffed to maximum capacity — I have arranged them not alphabetically, or by author, but mainly by size, in order to jam the most books possible into any given space.  This means that some books are shelved vertically, with others stacked on top of them horizontally to fill any available gaps.  When the shelves filled, I began stacking under chairs and tables.  It is a veritable Tetris game of books.  Some genres tend to unconsciously flock together — there is one bookcase that seems to be mainly classics, another science-fiction and fantasy, another that is largely photography and reference books.  Contemporary fiction seems to gather in a bunch here, a cluster over there…but there are no absolutes.  Many of J’s original books have migrated to one bookcase, to make them easier for him to find.  Yet for the most part, it is cluttered and impressionistic and a little wild.  I like it that way.  I tend to have a vague idea of where any given book is and can locate it fairly quickly, if necessary.  But I prefer the opportunity to glide among the stacks and let my eyes and hands fall on something unexpected.  It’s the hunt, the discovery, that stimulates me.  Many people prefer a more straightforward approach.  A trend has even emerged among design blogs to shelve books by color — book snobs tend to frown on this, but some people have more of a visual memory and are more likely to remember the color of a book than a title or author.  I won’t judge.

 

Unless you do this and shelve them backwards because “it looks pretty” and “I like neutrals”. Then I will judge you HARD. Holy fuck, you garbage person, you have somehow managed to simultaneously be a total psychopath and also an incredibly boring, try-hard vanilla drip in thrall to stupid “design” trends — well done! I mean, they’re yours and I guess you can do what you want with them, but this is a crime. You have completely negated the point of books, which is to find/read/share them. I’m almost impressed that anybody could be this terrible.

 

However, I definitely have my own preference:  Libraries, I secretly feel, should be mildly dark, chaotic, and ambient.  They should be rambling and twisty and disordered.  Non-linear.  Somewhat less than intuitive.  I should have to look a little to find what I want, and in the process be reminded of other books I have forgotten.

 

 

* * * * *
 

Our kitchen is very small, and my work is stinky — this is no ordinary bibliochor, but a heady and sickening mix of mold, eau de rat piss, and various cleaning chemicals.  I have worked out something of a system.  With gloved hands, I remove a book from its box and shake it vigorously over a trash bag.  I dry-brush away any dust, cobwebs, dead spiders, manageable amounts of mold spores, etc.  (Heavy concentrations of black mold, I don’t fuck around with…a book that damaged, I catalogue to be replaced at a later date, and put out for the garbage man.)  Then I submit them to multiple baptisms.  The book is wiped down (inside/outside covers, page edges, and spine) with a Lysol wipe.  Then again with a sponge soaked in hydrogen peroxide.  Once more with a sponge soaked in vinegar.  A final time with a sponge soaked in rubbing alcohol.  As an encore, I flip through the entire volume several times, spritzing the individual pages with a spray bottle full of vinegar.  This is the best-case scenario.  This is how it goes if a book is fairly “easy”.

 

 

Books, I quickly learn, are rarely easy.

 

 

Spending hours upon hours each night with books I haven’t seen in years is, it turns out, an emotional task.  I did not expect this to be so, because I don’t remember catching the feels like this with the first batch I cleaned, back in 2011 or so.  Perhaps I was still too close to it all back then.

 

I do not much enjoy feeling strong emotions.  I was an emotional child, an emotional teenager, and an emotional young adult.  Looking back, it embarrasses me — that I felt everything so keenly.  It is not surprising, but it is a bit ignominous.  I’m not sure if the way I am now is the result of extensive therapy and confronting my demons head-on until they started to seem mundane, a natural layer of jadedness that comes with turning 30, or the hard-headed pragmatism that emerges once you have spent a couple of years homeless, where something as nebulous and burdensome as feelings just gets in the way.  But whatever it is, I don’t cry much any more.  Only J, it seems, can make me cry any more, and rarely does.  I am somewhat cried-out, but, it sometimes seems, also joyed-out.  I am content.  J and I have lived in the same home for 3 years and will likely be here for several more.  It is the longest I have ever been in one place since striking out on my own, and I am comfortable with the stability, comfortable no longer swinging like a pendulum between fears and emotional extremes.  I look back at who I was and almost roll my eyes…Why did you wallow like that?  I demand of myself, harshly.  Why did you waste so much time?  So much energy?

 

Yet, here I am.  My eyes filling with tears over dirty old books.

 

* * * * *

 

It’s Neverwhere that kickstarts it, I think.  The reminiscing.  The worse condition a book is in, the more time I must spend with it, and thus the more time mired in the memories it carries.  I remember with startling clarity exactly where, when, and how I came by many of these books.  Sometimes, once you get thinking, you just can’t stop.

 

I was living in an apartment, more or less platonically, with two men that I loved.  I could never decide which I loved more, because to me, at that time, they made the perfect man if you could only sort of smoosh them together.  One was very brilliant, dry, witty, and utterly oblivious that I loved him.  One was very cuddly, affectionate, tactile, and emotionally intuitive — an overeager, floppy-eared puppy of a human being.  If you’ve seen Freaks and Geeks, perhaps you’ll understand when I say he was my Nick Andopolis (hereinafter, NA) — there was a lot of desire there, but always something slightly “off” about our interactions.  We could never seem to get it together.  He was not oblivious that I loved him (indeed, he was astute enough to realize that I was in love with both of them).  We were incapable of being either friends or lovers.

 

Brilliant/Dry/Witty/Oblivious (BDWO) had a bookshelf in the bedroom that the three of us shared, and encouraged me to borrow from it, and that was where I first discovered Neil Gaiman.  I read either Neverwhere or Smoke and Mirrors first (I can’t remember which, but it was one of them; he had both and I read them back-to-back.)  Hungry for more, I moved on to Stardust upon BDWO’s recommendation, then American Gods.  Neil Gaiman quickly became one of my all-time favorite authors.  Years later, soon after moving in with J, I would finally tackle the dense mythology of Sandman.  It was one of the rare things we both read.  J purchased me the omnibus for my birthday one year.  (Indeed, one of the most frustrating things about writing an essay about the tenuous connections between books and emotions and memories, is that I’m almost positive that at some point, Neil Gaiman has said whatever I’ve got to say first, and more eloquently, and uniquely, and thoughtfully, and he probably dashed it off in about 5 minutes via a pithy blog or a tweet, in between brewing tea, churning out a bestselling classic, and harvesting honey from a beehive.  After publishing The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, I used to give talks at libraries about the importance of libraries and librarians…and then I found out that Neil Gaiman had been giving basically the same speech at libraries for years, except it was transcendent and touching and wise, and I’m pretty sure it did not sound like that when I gave it.)

 

Neverwhere and Smoke and Mirrors both turn up in the boxes I am cleaning.  I am fairly certain these are the actual copies that BDWO lent me, and I “absorbed” them upon moving out. Smoke and Mirrors is in good condition, Neverwhere is not, thus the extra care required to save it.  I think about BDWO for the first time in a long time.  I think about how he saw me on CNN, giving an interview about being homeless, and contacted me out of the blue to ask me why I didn’t just come back and live with him, why I didn’t tell him things had gotten this bad.

 

How could he understand why I didn’t feel comfortable going back there?

 

* * * * *

There is a middle layer to most of the boxes, where books are in very good or even pristine shape — the water from above has not seeped down that far, nor the mice chewed that far upwards from below…I start to live for this sweet spot of crisp, white-edged pages.  In the pristine zone, I unearth a nearly immaculate copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and know instantly where it is from.

 

I fling it in the garbage with a tinge of malevolence — I already own The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide with the entire series in one single volume, but mainly because the sight of that book sends a miasma of memories flooding so hard, thick, and fast that I can barely breathe.

 

When I met NA as a high school freshman, I had skipped two grades and was just about to turn 13.  NA and BDWO were seniors at the time, just about to graduate.  They did lights and sound for the high school drama department, and I was “the costume lady’s daughter” (my mother, a talented seamstress, was hired to outfit several productions).  When I was around 14, my mother threw me out of the house for the first (but far from the last) time.  I was allowed to bring none of my belongings with me and didn’t know where to go, so I called NA, and he took me to stay with BDWO.  They helped me stake out and break into my own home, to “steal” my own clothes and schoolbooks, so I could continue attending classes.  They put a mattress on the floor of BDWO’s computer room for me to sleep on.  NA gave me BDWO’s copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I consumed it like a girl possessed.  The boys would play Dungeons and Dragons with “the group”, an extended circle of friends.  They attempted a few times to get me to join in, but I was both irrationally afraid of demonic possession (as Jehovah’s Witnesses tend to be), and paralyzingly shy.  I was afraid to make mistakes, to sound stupid.  They kept a “stupid people” list in BDWO’s room, and I was petrified of landing on that list.  I was afraid of reaching into my own imagination and finding nothing worthwhile.  So I sat in the corner while they played D&D and read all of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, in succession.

 

BDWO would ask me several times a week out of the blue “What do you think, Bri?”  Confused the first time, I responded “About what?”  “About anything,” he responded.  He genuinely wanted to know.  I was deliriously happy at this brief time in my life, although I was so introverted that it may not have been immediately obvious.  It was also the time that NA seemed the most real to me, the most carefree, the most quintessentially NA.  That was the platonic ideal of the NA I first met, the NA I like to remember.  He called me “Sprite” (like the faery, not the drink).  I trembled in his presence; I fucking quivered if he came near me.  But I was jailbait and he had a girlfriend, or at least occasional girlfriends, and when he laid next to me at night and cuddled me without any further romantic overtures, I told myself it was a friendly gesture to make a lonely child feel safe, and that he could never love me, and that made it easier.  And harder.  BDWO had a pair of handcuffs and once, he and NA handcuffed my hands behind my back to my ankles.  It was ostensibly a joke, but in retrospect, I’m fairly sure at least NA was enjoying it a little more borderline-sexually than is comfortable.

 

Eventually, after a month passed and I didn’t come crawling back as expected, my mother falsely reported me as a runaway.  The police showed up and forced me to return home, under threat of “juvie” or “foster homes with strangers” as the only alternatives.  My mother tried to isolate me and turn me against my best friend, Sonia, by claiming she had been the one to betray my location.  Later, she claimed it was a different person, a friend of NA and BDWO whose phone number she retained after costuming him in Cyrano.  The story changed as she needed it to, in an attempt to divide me against any interlopers.  A version of this cycle repeated twice during my high school years — I would get kicked out again, and go to live with BDWO.  It was harder after the first time, though, because now she knew exactly where I was staying.

 

* * * * *

 

Many of the books in my salvaging boxes boast deeper damage…some with swathes of mold or rat piss that have stained through the covers and the first few layers of pages.  Others have slipped in their 7-year tombs in a manner that they did not lay flat, and have either wavy pages or are fully warped and bent, some into “U” or even “S” shapes, but they are otherwise still openable and readable.  Saving these requires more effort — they must be soaked in 91% alcohol (the high percentage makes it quicker to evaporate, thus abbreviating the length of time the book is wet).  The alcohol serves the dual purpose of killing mold and bacteria, but also of softening the tome to the point where I can massage and shape it with my hands, bending it back into something that looks like a book again.

 

NA also reinserted himself into my life after my story was on the news.  We would start talking about the good old days, started talking sexy again, the way we occasionally did after I turned 18.   ”I remember everything,” he told me.  “I remember you reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide.  You read the entire series in a week.  You were adorable.  I wanted to rescue you.”  And then, “…I wanted to molest you.”

 

It was meant to turn me on, I guess, and I played along like it did, but it creeped me out considerably.  He was aware when he said it that I actually had been molested and raped before, which felt insensitive.  (In contrast, when BDWO learned I had been raped, he offered/threatened to track down and inflict bodily harm on my rapist.  It was one of very few times I ever saw him angry, and I never forgot it.)  By this point, NA and I had been through a lot of ups and downs.  At 15, he wrote me a letter telling me he loved me, and begging for us to “be alone together”.  Sensing that I was not ready for this, was getting in over my head, and that there were definite legal issues at play given our ages…I backed out.  He angrily yelled at me over the phone that I was making a mistake.  He also told me that the declaration of love had been a lie, “just something you say to a high schooler”.

 

Once I was a legal adult, our lives seemed to constantly crisscross, weaving in and out of each other, but now, it was always he who backed out.  It was him I drove to the night I turned 18.  He always seemed to know when I was between boyfriends and reach out.  We would fool around a little, and he would bail the next day and send me an email, or have BDWO convey a message to me that he couldn’t be with me.  Then we wouldn’t speak for a year or two, I would avoid him until he decided to pop up again.  Rinse, repeat.  Once he asked if he could “share” me with one of his friends from high school who had a history of making suggestive comments about me (I passed).  By the end of things, he had changed from the boy I knew in high school.  To say he had become increasingly religious (as I became increasingly irreligious) would be accurate, but would also only be a fragment of the truth.  He had started believing he was a prophet.  That God talked to him — not in prayerful exchange like most religious people, but literally, audibly, externally — as in, “I hear God speaking to me in the shower and he tells me to do things.”  He was also convinced that he had been picked to save the world, that he was psychic, and that he had superpowers. He had taken to telling me who I was and wasn’t in ways that came off like a grandiose order:  “You’re not an atheist,” he declared.  (I was, and am.)  “You believe in God, or at the worst, you’re just an agnostic,” he insisted.  (I did not, and was not, and said so.)  If I expressed, say, even the mildest of bicurious thoughts, he would put on a show of being grossed out and insist that I wasn’t actually interested in that.  It was as though he needed me to share his beliefs, and his delusions, in order to justify caring about me.  And regardless of what I said I thought or felt, it didn’t really matter, because if he didn’t like it, “God” would just tell him it wasn’t true, and it was settled.  I felt less and less like a real person to him.  BDWO had asked me “What do you think, Bri?”  NA no longer felt the need — as far as he was concerned, he already knew.

 

I was well aware that long-term auditory hallucinations were a giant mental health red flag, and tried all manner of methods in dealing with this new twist.  I tried laughing it off, as though he were joking.  I tried acting like I hadn’t heard.  I tried reason.  I tried recommending professional help.  I tried agree-to-disagree.  I tried acceptance-as-long-as-god-isn’t-telling-him-to-murder-me-but-also-you-never-know-when-god-will-tell-him-to-murder-me-and-if-that-happened-I-would-be-the-last-to-find-out-which-would-be-while-he-is-murdering-me-so-hrm-conundrum.  All the ways I thought a “good” friend was supposed to handle a volatile situation, I tried, but he talked his way in circles around and out of them like someone who wasn’t really interested in help or advice, only the answers he wanted to hear, so I gave up.

 

He wanted to remain a “virgin” (apparently not considering blowjobs “real” sex), but also clearly wanted to fuck me and that seemed to disgust him about himself.  Like he considered it a weakness — considered me a weakness.  His fantasies got darker and we headed into pretty deep sado-masochistic territory (“I like to make girls cry”, he told me).  On some level, I admit I loved it — letting someone else take charge for a while when at the time every day felt like a struggle could be a relief.  It could be hot, too — dangerous, like not realizing you’re alive until you’re playing with fire and the precariousness and fragility of your situation jolts you with the thrill of the taboo.  He knew how to get inside my head sexually and fuck around with it, for sure, but the lines started blurring and it became harder to separate our sexy sessions from real life.  Pretty soon there wasn’t a difference between making me play-cry in a fantasy and cry in real life.  It was some major mindfuckery to have it insinuated one minute that I was screwed up for being cool with gay people, and the next told that he wanted to tie me to a table, torture me, slap me in the face, and shove a giant dildo up my ass.  He told me that he had wanted to love me, but that “I would never let him”, although he was always the one who ran.  Another preferred gambit was asking me how much I weighed.  (The answer was always the same:  None of your business, and also I truly have no idea, because I don’t weigh myself.)  He would nod and then a few minutes or hours or days later, he would innocently ask:  “How much did you say you weigh now, again?”  He was obsessed with my weight.  He insisted I had low self-esteem even as he chipped away at it.  He was prone to “your problem is…” pronouncements.  If I just took his advice, he told me, he could “fix” my self-esteem.  If I said I liked myself fine, he denied it.  When he talked about wanting to “molest” me at 15, the suspicion finally dawned that low self-esteem was what he wanted.  He didn’t want me as I was now, sure of myself.  Independent Bri was a turnoff.  He wanted me frozen in time forever as a child.  A tearful innocent.  Someone to “rescue”, but also to break down.  Someone who would believe what he wanted her to, feel what he wanted her to.  Someone to manipulate and mold into his ideal.  A disciple, lost without him.

 

Why did I keep trying to make sense of this stranger who was by now just a shell of NA?  I suppose I told myself that it was love and love can make a difference, but perhaps the truth is more primal and somehow more pathetic — I imprinted on him.  Like a baby duckling.  I was newly born to a life outside of my family, of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, of harshness and abuse, and he was the first thing I saw, and that was it.  I opened my eyes and saw kindness and latched onto it.  I continued to see only that kindness and warmth even years later, when it was only an echo.

 

Our lives had somehow become bound up together, and once that happened, disentangling from those years and layers, that cauldron of emotion and hurt and trust and betrayal and secrets and sex…could never be anything but messy.  It was only a matter of time.

 

* * * * *

 

Once manually reshaped, the books must be dried and flattened in stacks.  It is important to wait until they are entirely dry before separating them — the mix of chemicals can be a bit sticky until it dries.  If I try to force books apart before fully dry, the covers can stick together and rip, or transfer.  My inital efforts involved simply stacking them in front of our heating vent, which helped a little, but not entirely…even with heavier books on top, some pages were still wavy, some covers still bowed.  Judicious Googling revealed that librarians solve this by using an industrial “book press”, a giant, prohibitively expensive machine.  I ponder the problem.

 

J hears loud clangs and comes downstairs to find me tugging at his barbell, struggling to separate the largest flat, disc-shaped weights from one end.  “I’ve got the solution!  It will work!  You’ll see!  You have to let me use these!”  J powerlifts, and uses this barbell every day.  But he knows my determined face, recognizes inevitable defeat, sighs, and surrenders the weights to me for the duration of the project.  I press one on top of each stack and leave it for a day or so.  It works like magic.  The pages, upon drying, are as close to perfectly flat as you can expect.

 

An interesting aspect of the project is discovering which books I have multiple copies of.  I can usually remember what I already own, but as my collection has grown, sometimes things get a little foggy.  I am apparently the kind of person who has, at some point in my life, purchased three copies of A Light in the Attic (but still never managed to pick up Where the Sidewalk Ends or Falling Up?!) and four copies of American Gods (one is in such rough shape I let it go.  The others I keep, figuring I’ll hold onto the “author’s preferred text” version as my personal copy and recommend/give the others away to friends someday).  There are also two copies of Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal — the yellow paperback that was my initial copy, and the special edition, jokily leather-bound in the style of a Bible.

The last time I saw NA, I gave him a carefully gift-wrapped copy of Lamb, a warm, human, hilarious book beloved by Christians and atheists alike (even taught in some seminaries).  On the inside cover, I inscribed some pap about finding joy and meaning in our similarities rather than our differences.  Or was it our differences rather than our similarities?  Something of that nature.  I hoped he would love it, recognize the gesture, but his reaction was indifference bordering on cold hostility, and my stomach dropped as it became clear that not only would he would never read it, but he resented me a little for giving it.  As though he felt I was mocking him.  The breach between us could no longer be bridged by books or love.  Perhaps it never really had been before, and it was all in my mind.

He told me he could never be with me, and how did I ever expect this would turn out, anyway?  He was a godly man, a man god talked to, and I was “the kind of person who fucked my friends”. 

 

It was a baldly false, hypocritical, self-serving and unfair smear.  I think he knew it, too.  It was a claim he made more to convince himself than me, but was so far over the line and wounded me to the core, that it didn’t matter.  The collateral damage was done.

 

 

 

There was…a severing.  Messy.

 

 
Ultimately, the long and short of it is that I told him to stay away from me, never to contact me again.  And then I set about unwinding my life and my emotions from him.  I was finally free.  I was wholly myself.

 

* * * * *

 

I begin to treat my book project as an archaeological dig, trying to decipher what certain books say about whoever I was when I bought them.  Two boxes are full of books I vividly remember picking up at a flea market in North Carolina.  At least two are Nicholas Sparks novels.  I remember being the type of person who read Nicholas Sparks, but I’m not proud of it.  I discard them because they are of dubious literary merit, and because thoughts of North Carolina make me claustrophobic.

 

North Carolina…why?  Well, there was a man.  (Of course.)  The less said about him the better, really, but I’ll say a little something about him anyway.  He was probably the most inherently awful person I ever dated (yes, worse than NA.  Worse than my ex-fiancé Matt.  I don’t think their shittiness was innate.  They had redeeming qualities.  This guy had zero.)  He is the kind of person who, if I met him now, I would never be interested.  Every cell in my body would be screaming “Run!!!!!  Get out now!!!!!”  But when I was 19 and inexperienced, still vaguely Christian, completely sheltered, and entirely ignorant of politics or the tenets of basic humanity, I’d take what I could get.

 

What I could get, it seems, was an ultra-conservative and controlling 26-year-old with a long, rectangular head, sharp ferret features too small for his face, and a forceful, judgmental, generally hateful outlook on life.  I haven’t seen him in about 15 years, but I am certain he owns a MAGA hat.  Let’s call him Ginger Bill O’Reilly.  He was bequeathed to me by my roommate, who had dated him.  Now that I think about it, she was probably trying to get him to leave her the fuck alone, and hoped a new girlfriend would do the trick.  So she introduced us and told us we’d probably hit it off.  It seemed like a very sophisticated and “adult” arrangement at the time to me, but I probably should have realized that I was being set up as a scapegoat.

 

I was a virgin.  Ginger BO was the kind of man who spent months pressuring me to fuck him in hopes of wearing me down before I was ready.  The phrase “just the tip” became common parlance, unironically in rotation.  Once I finally did fuck him, he slutshamed me and told me we had sinned.  We would stop fucking, then he would beg me to fuck him again.  He said he was still in love with my roommate, but that “I’d gotten closer to him than any other woman”, and I should keep telling him I loved him in the hopes that one day it would stick.  I would tell him I loved him, he would respond “OK”, I would fuck him, then he would again blame me as a weak whore and temptress, disappear, and show up in my driveway weeks or months later with apologies.  After the fifth or sixth circle of this merry-go-round, he moved to NC and he said I should go with.  Very unwisely, I did.  My friend Danny helped me pack and ship my books.  It took hours, and at the end of it, he pressed a hundred dollar bill into my hand and insisted I take it, saying he wished he could do more.  The gesture stuck with me, and has never left.  Danny was always a smart cookie; I’m pretty sure he already knew moving to NC was a terrible idea, and that it would not end well.

Ginger BO ghosted on me about two weeks into NC, just up and drove away one day after a fucking, and never returned another call.  It was a tiny, rural town — it was no SoCal, or Pittsburgh, for that matter.  The people were largely suspicious of outsiders (especially Californians) and unfriendly, or only friendly if you would accept the offer to attend their church.  The minimum wage was $2.13.  I spent over a year there with multiple jobs, struggling to scrape up enough to get the fuck back to California…as a waitress, a hair-washer at a beauty salon, a Blockbuster Video.  Once a month I would go to the local flea market and load up on books, 10 for $1.00, to pass the time and make my isolation bearable.  Nicholas Sparks was one of the more common offerings available — he was a local author, lived in nearby New Bern, and it was around the time they were adapting every single schmaltzy, formulaic sob story of his into a B-list romcom.

 

 

One day, Ginger BO waltzed into Blockbuster during my shift.  There were three employees on registers, but he made a beeline for mine.  I ground my teeth and rang up his DVDs, “Your total is $7.98, sir.”

 

“Hey, Bri—” he began.  Grinning.  Smug.

 

“Have a pleasant day, sir,”  I cut him off and stared vacantly through him, without altering my tone.  I took satisfaction in noticing his jaw clench, his hand slam on the counter as he grabbed his rentals.

 

That evening, Ginger BO began bombarding me with emails — how dare I treat him like just any stranger, how dare I act like I didn’t know him?  How dare I humiliate him, make him feel small, insignificant?!  There was no reason for that!  Who the fuck did I think I was?  Further ranting revealed that he had been asking around town about me, quasi-stalking me for months.  I didn’t have any social media at the time, so he had sent local friends into the hair salon where I worked.  As I shampooed their hair, they chatted with me, what I thought were innocent questions about my life.  They asked me who I was renting a room from, where else I worked, and reported back to him.  When he learned I was living in a better neighborhood than him, it seemed to enrage him.  He called me a liar, a bitch, and a slut, trying to provoke a response.  How dare I ignore him?  He, a man who had disappeared into the vapor so many times on a whim, was entitled to my response!

 

The irony, the lack of self-awareness, the unhinged screed, filled me with an unexpected sense of power.  For once, I was the one denying him.  The more answers he demanded, the more my silence enraged him.  It killed him that I no longer cared.  It was a power I’ve never really reattained with any other man, probably because I actually do care about the people I date.  But at that time, with that man, I was done with his shit, and it felt like the sweet finger of Justice.

 

I eventually made it back to California, by transferring to a Blockbuster in Anaheim.

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

Other resurfaced books similarly evoke an instant sense of time and place — Michael Shurtleff’s Audition; reading it in the high school auditorium with my feet propped up on a seatback.  In drama class, when I still believed all answers could be found in books, that a book could make me a good actor.  (It did not, and I am glad for it now.)  I set it aside, planning to read it again soon.  J and I are watching HBO’s Barry, with Bill Hader, and it might make an interesting companion piece.

 

There is a volume containing the His Dark Materials trilogy.  I find a Lake Forest Goodwill receipt inside and vividly remember this day.  I was driving around with a boyfriend who didn’t last long.  He was short and nearly 400 lbs. with long hair and a love of heavy metal.  He had a Boondock Saints tattoo across his knuckles (red flag) which he was very proud of (red flaggier), and a deep-seated, furious inferiority complex about his micropenis (red flaggiest).  We were near the local Goodwill and I suggested we stop in, because I love few things more than thrift stores.  He parked, but stayed in the car.

 

“You can go in.  I’ll wait here.  I just don’t go into thrift stores.  I feel like they’re beneath me.”

 

“That’s beneath me” seems like such an absurd, stock sentiment that you only hear in movies; it was a shock to hear it in real life, and applied to something so innocuous.  I was hurt.  “Everything I own is secondhand.  My clothes, my furniture, my books, they’re all from thrift stores.  Does that mean you think I’m beneath you?”

 

He got angry.  “See, I knew that’s how you’d take it.”  As if there were another way to take it.

 

I breezed through the thrift store, spending no more than 10 minutes inside, feeling like an asshole for keeping him waiting alone in the car.  I picked up His Dark Materials and Chang and Eng, just so I didn’t feel like I’d somehow lost.

 

* * * * *

 

In their own way as interesting as the books that jog my memory…are the ones that don’t.  Inside The Maltese Falcon, I find handwritten directions to a cheap motel, the Tustin Motor Inn, one of the places Matt and I stayed while homeless.  I must have been reading this book around then — I certainly remember having read it at some point, and there could be little else to do while homeless besides read and complete online job applications — but trying to remember exactly which books I was reading while I was with Matt, I encounter something of an uncharacteristic void, or a brick wall.  As thoroughly documented as that period of my life is, upon recall the overriding impression is simply that I was so happy, almost obscenely happy for someone with no stable residence, and that everything was wonderful and promising and going places.  Up until it wasn’t, instantly and without warning.

 

In my labor, I am suddenly confronted with a collection of Dilbert strips, and this is truly a puzzlement.  Although I now regret it, I can at least remember being the kind of person who read Nicholas Sparks.  I have also dug up several Orson Scott Card books and an anthology of his short stories.  I no longer buy Orson Scott Card because he is rabidly homophobic and terrible, but I remember when I liked to read him (he was another outcrop from NA and BDWO, who started me on Ender’s Game).  I have thrown away the Nicholas Sparks, but decide to keep the Orson Scott Cards because they’re at least entertainingly-written and were purchased before I knew he was a Very Bad Person, so it doesn’t really count as supporting him.  I am also the kind of person who owns many trashy, badly-written tie-in novelizations of popular films.  I am not proud of it, but I was that kind of person (and own that I still am, in this instance, and will probably always be).

 

The Dilbert, though is a quandry.  I have never, in my entire life, been the kind of person who read Dilbert or found it funny (even before I knew the author was a Very Bad Person).  I have zero idea how I came by this book.  Was it absorbed from a former roommate?  Eventually, I decide perhaps it belonged to my stepdad E, who is the kind of person who would have chuckled at Dilbert.

 

I have Never. Ever. Ever. Ever. Never. Ever. Nerrrver. Nenver. Nevnevenen. Nenverinero. Nevernev. Novenvon.

 

My mother married E when I was 6.  He gifted me with his childhood books, many of which were about football, but also some that I loved like Orwell’s 1984.  (That was the first one of his that I read.  He had never had children before, so I’m not sure he was considering age-appropriateness.)  I also find my first copy of The Giver, the book I used to teach my sister to read.  I began reading when I was 2; at the age of 9 she still couldn’t (or wouldn’t).  My parents tried everything, even “Hooked on Phonics” (she flung it across the room in frustration).  Eventually, it turned out that the way to get her to read…was to read to her.  I read The Giver aloud and always stopped at the most interesting parts.  Eventually, she was so impatient to find out what happened next, she picked it up and started struggling through it herself.  She became a reader, too. 

 

 

1984 is in my boxes, and has survived in good condition.  E’s vintage copy of Robinson Crusoe is also there, but has turned nearly to mulch, unfortunately.  There is also a set of 1920s children’s books that must have belonged to E’s father before him — his father’s name is written in a child’s chickenscratch inside one of the covers.  These are in a bit dicey condition, but I am able to stabilize them.  I have many vintage books, some over a hundred years old.  They are probably not worth much, most obtained from library sales for $0.25-$0.50, but I work harder to save the old ones.  They have been glomping around this earth for a century or two; if they have lasted this long, who am I to be the one to tell them to fuck off into the garbage without at least trying to stem time and decay first?  It would be libricide, pure and simple.  There’s a sense of custodianship over the oldest ones. 

 

I do not remember a mid-century book called The Seal-Woman, by Ronald Lockley, but it is in good condition and I find all things “selkie” interesting.  I look it up on Goodreads, only to find with a shock that I have apparently not only read it before, but left a review about it.  I have not been on Goodreads for years, and looking back at my reviews embarrasses me.  They are shallow, uncritical, free of any relevant analysis or helpful details.  Browsing futher, I see that I also reviewed books like He’s Just Not That Into You.  Back before I figured out that maybe it didn’t take a pseudo-self-help book to tell me the problem was that I had shitty, undiscriminating taste in men.  Or that at least part of the problem, the common denominator in my bad relationships, was me.  Or that I didn’t have a clue who I was, or what I wanted.  Or all of the above.  I delete my Goodreads reviews shamefacedly.

 

 

* * * * *

 

On Monday, my boss asks me what I did over the weekend.  I explain The Book Project.  He tries and fails to keep from wrinkling his nose a bit, and says “sounds like maybe more trouble than it’s worth.  It might be easier to just throw them all away.”  He tells me that he only uses a Kindle now.

 

YOU MONSTER, I think.

 

My boss is not a monster.  He is a supremely nice man, and the kind of supervisor people dream of having.  He is also well-read, and enjoys sci-fi and fantasy.  We had a nice little bonding moment over the “Make Good Art” poster of Neil Gaiman I posted in my cubicle.  He is a Neil Gaiman fan.  (Little fragile threads intersecting like webs throughout my life, from my books to my past to my present to my heart.)  He tells me his wife, who also works here, is more of a book-hoarder like me.

 

I have no real grudge against the Kindlevangelists.  If you’re reading, then you’re reading, and I’m not going to judge how you go about it.  The truest value of literature is the actual words you read.  I have downloaded a few e-books onto my tablet, for plane flights and bus rides.  My only complaint about the Kindlevangelists is the ruthless and persistent rationality, that they can’t understand why I am so devoted to tangible books.  You try to explain it, and they can’t or won’t wrap their heads around it.  The tactile ritual of holding, opening, turning pages.  How does a Kindlevangelist safely read in the bathtub?  Squinting at a small screen that long and intently hurts my eyes after a while, just on a physical level.  I also don’t quite like how dependence on screens has rewired my brain a bit…To my shame, I have caught myself absent-mindedly tapping the pages of a physical book every 30 seconds or so, a habit I have formed while using my tablet to keep the screen from going dark due to nonactivity.  I want to be able to read without that kind of half-distraction, to immerse myself fully in the book.  I do not find serenity in reading from a Kindle.

 

Why don’t you downsize?  They suggest.  Just the ones you’ve already read.  But there are many I have read again and again.  Even the ones I didn’t love, I may want to share with a friend of different tastes.  How does a Kindlevangelist have a friend over to browse their shelves, and loan?

 

Conversely, some Kindlevangelists treat the library as though it were a closet.  Keep only the ones you love and use on a regular basis.  Chuck the ones you keep passing over; you’ll never get around to reading them.  There is a concept that originated with author Umberto Eco — the anti-library.  He explained to a journalist that most people, upon seeing his giant library of 30,000 books, asked the wrong question:  How many of these have you read?  They missed the point, which was that the library did not exist to bolster his ego or literary cred, but to learn and research from.  Being surrounded with unread books was more valuable than being surrounded solely with read books.  We are at least as defined by the books we mean to get around to reading as the ones we have already read.  (Which means I am possibly more defined by Eco’s 12 unread books than the single one I have gotten to already, which is The Name of the Rose.  Go me!)

 

Or, as Harlan Ellison put it more concisely:  “They wouldn’t know they’d asked a dumb question, but I didn’t want to insult them, either. So when they’d ask if I’d read all those books, I’d say, ‘Hell, no. Who wants a library full of books you’ve already read?’”

Finally, let’s get back down to the basest of drives:

 

 

If you are a Kindlevangelist, how can anybody know whether all you own is a plethora of Ayn Rand, and be warned not to fuck you, because you’ll only give them grief in the end?  It is in scenarios like these that bookshelves act as a public service.

 

At any rate, to the Kindlevangelists, I am too sentimental, an old-fashioned relic.  That’s OK.

 

* * * * *

 

The final boxes that J discovers, behind the water heater, contain the oldest books I own.  One that I am upset to see cannot be saved is an illustrated 1954 edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  It was given to me by Mrs. Cutts, my 4th grade teacher.  I remember her as something of a severe woman for most of the school year.  A recurring issue at school was that though I had skipped two grades and was the youngest in the class, I had inevitably already previously read all of the literary books on the curriculum, for fun, so teachers would have me pick a more advanced book to read and review.  This often meant extra assignments had to be created for me, and I’m sure it was a pain for the teachers who had to do it.  This was also the year that I came into class visibly bleeding and bruised in many places after a beating from my mother.  Mrs. Cutts called in school officials, who reported it to authorities, and a social worker came by our house once and decided it was “an isolated incident” (it was not) before closing the case.  Mrs. Cutts seemed to soften a bit after that.  On my final day of 4th grade, she gave me this copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  The cover has completely detached, and there is too much mold, making it a hazard to save.

 

The bulk of my childhood books, however, came from Nathan Cohen.  Nathan owned an establishment on Main Street in Seal Beach known only as The Bookstore.  Seal Beach was a regular haunt of my mother’s; it was where she had grown up and remembered hanging out with all of her friends.  She began dropping me and my sister off at The Bookstore when we were very young, while she would shop and unwind at Seal Beach.  The Bookstore was tiny and more than cluttered — it was the twisty, dark, winding playground of my dreams.  Piles and piles of books of every description reached the ceilings.  There was barely any floor, only a narrow path carved between the piles.  We would sometimes spend hours there.  Nathan was old and leathery, with long white hair, and always with a genuine smile to be glimpsed, if you could find him — the top of his head barely peeked over the stacks surrounding the cashier’s desk.  He was the sort of man whose kindness touched everyone he ever met.  If I didn’t have enough money saved for all of the books I wanted, or my mother wouldn’t buy me a book, he would often just give them to me for free.  He didn’t do what he did for the money.  From Nathan, I purchased or was gifted hundreds of books over the years — Swiss Family Robinson, Gone With the Wind (A hugely problematic one; I cringe now, remembering that we had recently seem the movie, so I read it aloud to my sister and “did the voices” of the slave characters, which delighted her…in my defense, I was 7 and no adult thought to explain it was super-racist at the time), Sense and Sensibility, Showboat, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Lady Sings the Blues.  They are all here, and most of these are in fair condition, but I must give up hope on The Loner and The Phantom Tollbooth.  I resolve to replace them soon.

 

 

Nathan Cohen in The Bookstore.

 

On June 5, 2000, Nathan Cohen had a massive heart attack inside The Bookstore.  He died there.  I was 15.  (It would have been around the time NA was telling me he loved me and wanted to be “alone” with me.  It was already quite a tumultuous time in my life.)  The Bookstore had been a fixture on Main Street for 18 years.  A group of heartbroken customers and friends whose lives he changed forever attempted to buy The Bookstore and its inventory, and keep it running.  Negotiations with the city failed, however.  The Bookstore became a soulless little dime-a-dozen gift shop, selling tourists postcards and knickknacks.  I went back to Main Street once, as an adult.  It was with Matt, my ex-fiancé.  I wanted him to see the places I grew up.  But it was a futile exercise — there was no spark of connection there.  Nathan and The Bookstore were gone, and that had been the sole attraction of Main Street to me.  Seal Beach was now only my mother’s childhood, no longer my own.

 

* * * * *

 

Our basement is finally emptied, the project finally completed, save one batch of books that continues to noticeably smell after their first cleaning.  In a last-ditch effort before giving them up as lost, I try a trick suggested online:  I stick them in a plastic bag, bury them in baking soda, and entomb them in the freezer.  The cold is supposed to kill any remaining stench-causing bacteria, and the baking soda will allegedly absorb the odors.  At the end of a week, I pull them from the freezer and brush away the powder.  They are fresh and smell like books again.  (The baking soda reeks, however, and is consolidated to the outside garbage can.)

 

I have run out of shelves and nooks and crannies for my books, so I pile them on the library floor as high as they will go without toppling.  If I squint a little, they begin to look like Nathan’s Bookstore, and it is satisfying.  It is good.

J peeks his head into the library to see the result and his eyes widen a little at the sheer number of books on the floor, but I promise that we will put up more shelves on the wall and it won’t be permanent.  He concedes that the basement books no longer smell bad.  I have succeeded.  All told, I have rescued around 500 books, and lost 36.  I look up some of the ones that need to be replaced and am irritated to see that Dancing Through History, by Joan Cass, purchased from a flea market for less than a dollar, will cost me around $100 if I ever want to read it again.

 

There were also two boxes of DVDs in the basement, collected during my days working at Blockbuster.  With the advent of streaming, they are not worth much, and I have given many of them away to friends over the years, but we decide to keep them.  J is a film-lover, so to consolidate space, I purchase a CD storage folder and put him in charge of removing each DVD from its case, saving the disc and discarding the case.  At the end of it all, I ask him if there was anything in the DVD collection he is interested in seeing.  There are, he says.  Some indie films he’d never heard of that looked intriguing.

 

“But also,” he continues, “there was a lot of stuff in there that didn’t seem like something you would have.  I’m pretty sure I saw a Nicholas Sparks movie.  It was a little weird.”

 

It is a tiny moment of startling synchronicity.  He has heard stories about North Carolina, of course, about Ginger BO, about NA and BDWO, about my mother and my sister and high school, but these have been an abstraction.  It is strange and curious to be confronted with direct evidence, however superficial, that does not seem to fit the only me he has known.  At this moment, I am suspended, weightless, between all of the iterations of myself that ever came before.  Who were you?  Were you always?  Why are you no longer?  Was there ever a point to it?  Anything worth missing?  Anyone?  I close my eyes and sense the book stacks surrounding me, inexorably growing, choking like weeds.

 

 

Comments

  1. Rebecca Goodrich says:

    You can use plain white vinegar rather than Lysol. The vinegar kills nearly as many molds, mildews, etc., as Lysol, and is not a hazard to you or the environment.

    • Brianna says:

      Thank you for the info! I used both, just to be safe, but it’s good to know for the future! We use vinegar for pretty much all of our cleaning/mopping (and in the laundry – it’s a miracle ingredient!) I had to specifically buy Lysol for the book project; it was one of the recommended treatments online somewhere specifically for reversing damage to books.

  2. Darren C. says:

    Great job saving all those books !

    I am also a lover of books (and kindle books), but I haven’t read fiction since I was a teenager.

    My favorites are biographies of mathematicians.

    Thanks for the post, I hope you are doing well.

    • Brianna says:

      Hrm, don’t think I have any mathematician biographies (math was never my strong suit), but a LOT of biographies of/works by scientists…mostly biology (Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, Dawkins, a TON of Stephen Jay Gould because he’s my favorite, etc.) But also a little physics (Stephen Hawking). Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s “The Sky is Not the Limit” is also on my “to-buy” list.

  3. Linda Bartell says:

    So glad to read your blog. Have missed your thoughts. Your timing on the subject of books so timely for me. I’ve loved to read since childhood. I reached a time where I lost my attention span. Namely, menopause. Now that the crazy is over and I can concentrate again I have a passion for reading again. So when I read your blog I wanted to read some of your favorite books. Went to the library and “Neverwhere” was not there. Ocean at the End of the pond was. Loved, loved, loved it. Now you’re costing me money…lol.. My copy of Neverwhere showed up in the mail today. Tomorrow that journey begins. Thank you my sweet friend for helping me back to my passion for books. Will be contacting you for future reading. Glad you’re doing well and happy!!! Love to you

    • Brianna says:

      Always good to hear from you! ♡ “Neverwhere” was my gateway drug to Gaiman; you’re in for a treat! I loved “Ocean at the End of the Lane”, too…read it in the hospital waiting room before my tubal ligation a couple years back. If you want to read some of my books/share your favorites, friend me on LibraryThing! It’s my new project; getting all my books scanned in :) https://www.librarything.com/catalog/brizzzy

  4. Jeff says:

    I have very fond memories of Nathan as well. That was the such a great place to visit and he was really a nice man, as you said.

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