They say not to judge a book by its cover, but you can learn a lot about people from the titles on their shelves. Sometimes, an absence tells the whole story. The Strand sells a poster with this John Waters quote: “If you go home with somebody and they don’t have any books, don’t !@#$ them!” This seems easy enough. I fell in love with a woman once, and we decided to exchange books. She gave me one called What is Death? I think I tried to give her Rilke. You already know how that ended.
You can never predict what a person is going to have in his or her library. In college, I had Shakespeare class with a professor would cry while reading a soliloquy. That is how much he loved Shakespeare. When I went to visit him in his office, I saw some of the greatest writers in history represented, as expected. There was Shakespeare (of course), John Milton, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Dante Alighieri, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Marcel Proust, and Leo Tolstoy. My eyes dinged back, like the end of the line on a typewriter. Those shiny newer hardcovers, sandwiched in between. If Democrats Had Any Brains, next to Dante’s The Inferno. Now I know, I should not have been surprised. This is the range of a human being.
When I moved into my first apartment, I had almost no furniture. The rooms were empty, and the bare wood floors must have made me feel exposed. I decided to surround the perimeter with piles of books. The titles did not matter. The books were weight, like literary sandbags, some form of fortification against the floods of fear and loneliness. I liked to look at the wall. I would never read those books. If anyone came home with me, this was all there was to know.
At Word Up Community Bookshop, the inventory is almost entirely made up of donations. We carry other people’s books. Most of our stock is used. In the early days, the inside of the store could seem more like battlefield triage than retail bookselling. As many of our neighbors remember, the old space was an abandoned pharmacy, with hand-sized holes in the walls and a severely herniated ceiling. Books would be left at our gate, orphaned babies without a home. We took them in, regardless of their condition. Some were smoked out or soaked through, some were coming apart at the seams. We saw the broken spines, the torn off limbs, the scoliotic bodies. At that time, the function of Word Up was to revive and recirculate, led by volunteer Tom. We wanted to be the heart of the community, spreading books like lifeblood so there would never be an empty shelf.
One afternoon, when I came to open the store, there were two large cardboard boxes in front of the gate. I peeked underneath the flaps. Cats. I scored the packing tape with my keys and opened the box up. Books about cats. I dug through the box. Every single book was about cats. The other box was the same. All together, there were over a hundred books about cats at my feet. My first thought was, “what the fuck am I going to do with so many cat books?” The hospital was out of beds, so to speak. I mean, we had computer manuals from the 90s in our closet! I kicked the cargo inside with my foot. Behind the desk, I tried to figure out what to do. I could have stood them open near the walls, as warning to the mice. I could have burned them in the back alley and told no one. Despite our oath, I was leaning toward harming these books in a fatal way.
Suddenly, a man appeared. Without looking at him, I readied our usual line: “I’m sorry, we can’t fill your prescription. The pharmacy moved down the street. This is a bookstore.” But this was one of our regular customers, an elderly man with a full white mustache, wearing a tan trenchcoat, tennis shorts, flip-flops, and a pair of plastic neon sunglasses. He tripped on the new boxes, and then he started browsing. “Are these all about cats?” he said. “I’ll take them!” “All of them?” I said. “All of them,” he said. Then I made up a number, he put down the cash, and the boxes were gone, just like that. Word Up turned around a hundred cat books in fifteen minutes, because there is a book for every person, and a person for every book.
Soon enough, the neighborhood came to know that Word Up was finding new homes for old books. People would call us with rescue missions. For example, there was this super down on Fort Washington, who said he always hated throwing away books. I went over there one night with Daniella, pushing along one of those rickety red folding carts, like an old lady, the bones in my hands vibrating with the graininess of the street. The super led us down into the bowels of the building, through fresh clouds of steam, past clanging pipes, through the uneven labyrinth of makeshift hallways lined with giant putrid dumpling bags of sagging trash. Apparently, a couple from Eastern Europe suddenly vacated their apartment, leaving most of their possessions inside. I was confident that the books would reveal a story here. Unfortunately, the titles were in Czech. There seemed to be a few novels and some academic textbooks. Maybe these were young Bohemians. Rilke said, as poetic advice, to “try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.” Then again, he spoke Czech.
One day, there was a message from a man in the neighborhood. He spoke no English. In Spanish, he said his brother had recently died, and that he wanted to donate his books. I went with Gio, who was also lightly employed and generally agreeable to spontaneous adventures. We went to the address, buzzed up, and went inside. After wheezing up the stairs, and found door was open. Inside, there was a man eating cereal, in a bedroom, wearing an undershirt and his boxer shorts. He was watching the computer screen, what sounded like cartoons or blooper videos. He did not say a word to us. In the other bedroom, we say two tall boxes, intact form, flaps raised, waiting for us.
Gio and I each leaned into a different one and started digging. I remember Gio almost falling in, the soles of his shoes for a second levitating, and me almost laughing, trying not to crack. I had no idea how I was supposed to act in this situation. Was this grief? Gio called me over. In his box, there were books on veterinary medicine, in Spanish, textbooks and academic journals, contemporary scientific papers, and other advanced materials. He must have been a veterinarian. That means he loved animals, if he would choose to care for them, as his livelihood. My box had children’s stuff, picture books, learn to write, ABCs. The man must have had a child, I thought. I wondered about the child, I wondered about the mother. Then, I realized that there was no child. The man was the child. In the Dominican Republican, he was a leader in his field. When he immigrated to America, he had to learn English, as though he were a child again. Sure enough, I opened a workbook and found the penmanship of an adult. I was moved almost to tears. His brother did not want the books, but he wanted someone else to have them.
Recently, I moved out of my apartment, and I donated almost all of my books to Word Up (I kept the gifts I had been given). When I dropped them off, the bookstore was in the midst of a sale, and my boxes sat with all the others. Someone started picking at my books, turning title after title. He seemed excited. I hated him. There was no way that he can treat Elizabeth Bishop right, I thought. I was planning reading that Tranströmer volume soon, where will go now? Without Kay Redfield Jamison, I am afraid that I will not survive, literally. Giving my books away was like saying goodbye to pieces of my flesh. I decided that I would buy all of them back. Then I left.
Now, I have to say that I am happy. I like the idea of books that were mine, hiding on the shelves at Word Up, wedged in amongst the others, donated by people just like me, pieces of us combined into a greater story, which we will never know, waiting to go home with strangers. Our chapter is over. Anyway, we fool ourselves, thinking that they are ever ours. We only hold them for a while for a while, and then sooner or later we must pass them on. All we can do is recirculate, keep the blood moving, the body alive. Be careful, what you keep on your shelves. These are dangerous attachments, for many reasons. I had a teacher who used to say, “You don’t read the books, the books read you,” almost as a warning. My theory is that it happens while we are sleeping, or when we are away from home.
– Ben Ehrlich