I have a book garden. It’s located behind my desk and it takes up an entire wall of my office, floor to ceiling, front to back. My husband built this for me twelve years ago, constructing it a la Shaker style, forming a grid on the floor, nailing pine boards together then raising the entire unit until it stood flush and vertical against the wall. He even added some molding to the top and sides. A designer’s flourish.
We’d stored our books in cardboard boxes for years while we traveled overseas to Hungary and then back to New England and several states before settling in Boston, where we live now. At some point in my wanderlust, in my need to leave everything behind, I dared to leave another lifetime of books in a basement of a rental apartment. It felt wrong but I did it anyway—I was choosing to change the course of my life and books were heavy. I had to lighten my load.
But now I was done with traveling for a while. We had a five year-old and we were anchoring ourselves for the upcoming school years. Unloading those boxes of books was a joyous, frantic affair. Boxes and boxes finally unbound, we stripped off packing tape like new lovers ripping off clothes, hurling ourselves into happiness, reuniting after months. I was so relieved. Finally, my books were back in my life.
Over time, the shelves took on their own order, a sort of “his side, her side” way of things (reminding me of Carver’s description of a couple’s bed in one of his stories). History and business books dominated “his” side, with some law textbooks and biology books intermixed. On my side, novels and plays and poetry from undergraduate and graduate school days. More recently, shelves full of books written by friends.
That was thirteen years ago. My son is 18, and today my husband and I are celebrating 25 years of marriage. My collection of books has become a moveable time keeper, a shuffling abacus—with each book demarking some important passage of events, people, memories.
Feeling the push of decades behind me, I recently spent a weekend culling my book shelves. It was tedious yet satisfying. A book garden overgrown and tangled, I dusted and vacuumed crusty spines, pulled out textbooks I knew I wouldn’t reread, and paired lost volumes with each other. Finally, War And Peace Vol. 1 and 2 are side by side again. My Pushcart Prize anthologies, helter skelter on separate shelves, are lined up together in numerical order. I came across a Jean Rhys novel that I adored so long ago: Voyage in the Dark. Rereading the opening line, I fell in love once more:
“It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I’d ever known.”
There’s my book of Montaigne Essays (not the new one published recently); the one that my English professor gave me in college, a teacher who confessed to me that Montaigne’s essays had saved his life. There’s my book of Flannery O’Connor letters (Habit of Being) that I read the summer after my bone marrow transplant in 1981. O’Connor and I both had blood diseases. Her daily discipline of writing and faith ushered me through that year I reclaimed my health.
As I weeded my books, I also came across a book I didn’t know I owned. Intrigued by the title and picture: Ishi—a biography of the last Wild Indian in North America, I began reading and couldn’t stop. Sad, beautiful, aching, Ishi is the story of a man who witnessed his culture’s extinction by the White Man. It’s about ancient time colliding with modern time. It’s about how we cling but can’t hold on—like our hearts, like Ishi’s. It’s about reaching out to find new centers of order and connection after loss. Like Ishi’s loss of his entire people, like my loss of my father this past December. Time floods on.
The year before I met my husband, I was living in a studio apartment in Boston. 1985. Most of my furnishings consisted of books I’d bought from a place called The Bookcase in Cambridge. The Bookcase was a warehouse-sized building so crammed full of books, it spilled into a 3-story annex across the street. Art books, literature, science textbooks, obscure books. Any book. Every book. The Bookcase was a library, a place to wander down paperback aisles, a place to eavesdrop, to fall asleep. The Bookcase even functioned as a bank, at least for me. Anytime I needed fast cash, I knew I could haul a few books down to The Bookcase and sell them back to the owner. It was a perfect arrangement. A perfect balance for my cash-strapped life steeped in books.
So when my future husband and I decided to move to Florida together, I sold my furniture and headed back over to The Bookcase to sell more books.
“I’m in love,” I told the owner of The Bookcase. “We’re planning to get married!” I put several grocery bags of books on the sidewalk outside the store where he was kneeling, restacking some sale books. (I must have borrowed a friend’s car to deliver that load.) “That’s why I’m getting rid of everything. We’re moving to Florida.” I shrugged. “I don’t really want to sell them, but I need the money to buy a car. I mean, these books have been my life—So many memories--“
The owner nodded with the seriousness of an undertaker, then something sparked in his head.
“Let me tell you a story about a young couple who fell in love and wanted to marry,” he said, turning to me. It was a warm summer day in Cambridge, the kind of day that encourages musing.
“The girl was beautiful but her family was poor. So poor, her father had no money for her dowry. In those days: no dowry. No marriage,” the bookcase owner said. “Naturally, the father fretted over this. What to do? He had nothing of value that he could sell except his books. His books were very dear to him--like yours are to you--but he realized he had to sell them for his daughter’s dowry. Over the years, the father had built quite a collection. So he stacked his books on the street outside his house and put them up for sale. One by one, as people walked by, he began to have second thoughts. That book is very special, he would think, and take it back into the house. As the day wore on, he took book after book back into the house until there were no more books on the sidewalk, no sale and no dowry for his daughter. She never married.
“That’s terrible!” I said, pushing my books closer to him.
“So you see,” the owner said to me. “You’re making the right choice.”
A few days later, I got on a plane and flew south to be with the man I love. Today, a quarter of a century later, I honor this story of books, this story of time, this story of our marriage, and try to balance it all on this tiny nexus of today, this tipping point between yesterday and tomorrow. Today, 2011, my 25th wedding anniversary day. 1986. June 08. Boston. Gone. Here. Forever.