It began accidentally, the way nearly anything truly important does. I'd been reading a book otherwise unremarkable except for the fact that there was a character in it that reminded me of you. It made me want to call you and tell you about this character and this book and read bits of it to you.
But I couldn't call you, of course.
Then I remembered how you once complained that I'd never read any of your favorite books. I've read yours, you'd said, which seemed unfair, like some sort of trick. I thought you'd read them simply because you were interested in them, not because you wanted something, because you expected reciprocation. You seemed upset when I said so.
What does one do to recall someone absent? The answers are obvious: go to a place they often visited, prepare and eat a kind of dish they liked, turn personal articles that have been left behind into relics.
But one could read, too. I thought this was something you'd appreciate. I remember you reading some novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, I think and you said you liked to think of all the writers you loved having read it before you, reading the same words, perhaps even loving the same passages. You seemed so surprised when I confessed that this way of thinking had never occurred to me.
It came back to me as soon as I opened the book. The day had been your idea: you were the one who found the lake we visited, you were the one who went out early that morning and bought the contents of the picnic we ate, cheese, crackers, fresh fruit, and pastries. You could be thoughtful, of course, I'm not denying it. You always had ideas for places to go, things to do, ways of commemorating the month or week or day.
It was also your idea to take poetry books with us, to read our favorite poems aloud to each other. You'd brought along Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems.
I had wondered what you would read from it; I imagined some high school thing about nature or death. But you began with a poem I'd never heard before, Wild Nights, Wild Nights!
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor Tonight
You smiled when I confessed that I didn't know that she'd written anything like that. You said that Dickinson's earliest editors were troubled by the poem, too scandalous to include, too good to omit.
Everything about that day was perfect. But I wondered not that day, but later if you'd done all of it before, same lake, same poems, different people.
You'd probably just say I'm too cynical. That, according to you, had always been my problem.
I'm just realistic.
I'd never cared much for Flannery O'Connor. I never understood how anyone over the age of sixteen could like her writing, with its loud and unavoidable symbolism crashing about like a zealot wearing a sandwich board and ringing a bell.
You read her when you wanted to remember who you were and why you were, you said. You told me once that you'd visited her house and had seen the window she looked out of when she wrote her stories and that this meant something a lot to you.
You were at turns secretive and confessional about your past, about your family, growing up. Once when I pressed you about it you found her Collected Stories on the shelf and told me if I was interested in knowing about you I should read them. They had changed your life, you said.
I was skeptical. What did you imagine these stories could tell me?
I've always wondered what people mean when they say a book changed their life, it seems such a sly, slippery thing. I suspect that many say it without really thinking about what it means or what they mean by saying it, a thing parroted merely because it is encouraged, insisted upon, because it is everywhere around us, like saying I love you.
When I finally began to read them, I discovered they weren't quite as bad as I had remembered. It was easy enough to imagine you reading these stories, sixteen and dissatisfied, a baby chick trying to break out of its shell. I wondered what you thought of the girl-woman with the wooden leg. Did you identify with her when you were younger: strange and out of place, only to find when you escaped to somewhere new that you were irredeemably marked by the place you had left?
This younger version of you was one I'd never known and the farthest away, yet seemed the easiest to comprehend, the most compassionate and understandable, like a character in a book.
One day an old copy of The Turn of the Screw appeared in my bedroom. I didn't know how it'd gotten there. It wasn't mine in fact, I'd never seen it before. Once I began looking through it I realized it was the edition you had used for a literature class you'd been teaching, because the pages were mapped with a silent conversation of underlines, exclamation points, check marks, question marks, and notes penciled in the margins.
What would it be like, I wondered, to have never known you and come across your notes, your artifacts. They would seem smart, observant, I decided; even your unacademic remarks would seem endearing.
The book was short but dense. There's a governess who may or may not be insane and a pair of children who may or may not be conspiring with ghosts, and the madness is thrown back and forth between them like a game of catch. I might not have noticed all the odd things that pass between them, but your notes made me diligent, drew my attention to every discrepancy. A good teacher, I thought.
I didn't like the characters at all, and when I decided this much it was easy to imagine you laughing and saying that that wasn't the point, that I wasn't supposed to like them, that it wasn't supposed to be that simple or easy.
Who's the victim and who's the villain? You'd written this at the end of a chapter. The question hung there, too complicated for an easy answer.
Here was your book, your handwriting, even your smell or so I imagined still lingering in between the pages. But where were you? Reading these books was like going to one of those author's house museums you liked visiting so much, the place made up so perfectly, calculatedly to look as if still inhabited as if the author had set the table and made himself breakfast and had only just stepped out for a moment to ensure that visitors could feel something, could make a connection. A place teeming with presence and absence.
We went to see Othello sometime in the fall, a production of the local college's drama department. We had argued about something on the way there, and then upon our arrival sat next to each other for three hours, outwardly civil but quietly hostile, trapped by a performance of an unraveling relationship onstage and attempting to do our own performance of a successful one offstage.
It occured to me as I read: Romeo and Juliet are the poster children for passion and bad decisions, for breakneck relationships, but what about Othello and Desdemona, who are older but not any wiser? When they elope at the beginning, it's unclear how much they know about each other, how well they know one another. It's unclear whether they love the real person or the ideal.
How can we ever know for sure, I imagine you saying. When do we ever know the difference between the two?
They think love's enough, but they're wrong. Love is a neglectful parent, it gives birth to something and then fails to protect it. The real problem is that when the going gets rough Othello and Desdemona have no way of talking, they share no common language. Othello thinks he has proof of Desdemona's betrayal but he's wrong, he hasn't seen what he thinks he has. He sulks and stirs and snaps, she smiles or frowns, she's always quiet. They're dressed in Elizabethan attire, speaking Elizabethan poetry, but they're just like the typical modern couple: they fail because they can't communicate.
We were always fighting, at that point. About nothing. About everything. Anything.
But if she'd just told him the truth about the handkerchief maybe they wouldn't have gotten into that mess.
So what're you saying, her murder is her own fault?
Seeing is not believing, you said.
It was the first time you had seen my place: I was getting us drinks while you walked around the living room with your hands folded behind your back, quietly observing and reading the spines of the books as if you were in a museum. When I handed you the glass you thanked me and said, gesturing toward the shelves, that you'd been admiring my collection.
Then we sat for a while and talked about books and about lives full of them.
Eventually you looked at the bookshelf again and asked if I read very much by women writers.
I realized then that you'd been appraising, not admiring.
At first I was too embarrassed to be angry. In my defense, I pointed out a collection of George Eliot novels.
Your smile seemed kind enough, but it was obvious what you really meant: this was not adequate proof.
I had thought, then, that I had made a mistake. Who does she think she is, I wondered in disbelief. What right does she have to use my books as a means of implying I'm what, some stupid stereotypical
I reminded you that a personal library was not all-encompassing, that one may read plenty of books unaccounted for in it.
That's true, you said, but a personal library does reveal something. It reveals what you think is worth buying or owning, doesn't it? It reveals your interests, experience, knowledge, quirks, desires, hopes who you are and who you want to be. Our libraries reveal the tension between the two, the real self and the idealized one.
Aside from this incident, the night had gone well, but I didn't know what to think of you. I was wary.
And then, a couple of days later I received a gift from you, a peace offering, I thought, dropped off at the front desk of my building: a copy of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey with an inscription that thanked me for the nice night. I didn't quite know what to make of it, but it was enough: I called you, we went out again.
At some point not long after that you asked if I'd gotten around to reading it yet. I jumped, eagerly and impulsively, right into the lie: yes, I had read it, I said, thank you for the gift, I'd never read Austen before and was surprised to like it as much as I did. I proceeded to navigate a conversation about this book I hadn't read and didn't know anything about. When I got home I considered reading it or at least digging up a summary from somewhere but I felt so uneasy thinking about what I might discover that I couldn't bring myself to do it. Instead, I put the book on the highest shelf in the corner of the room, out of sight.
When I finally did read the book I discovered how good it was. I had always thought that Austen was nothing but hearts and flowers, but this book's quite different, it's about the education of a well-meaning but naïve protagonist, more importantly, it's about learning to read novels and learning to read people. I realized that you'd given it to me not simply because it was written by a female author or because you liked it, but because of what it was about; you'd given it to me for a reason.
But what was that reason, exactly? What were you trying to say? Was it just a kind gesture, an acknowledgment of our mutual love of literature? Or was it a joke at my expense?
There's a variety of ways to organize one's library: chronologically, geographically, by subject matter, color, shape or size. Sometimes a visitor perusing my shelves pauses at your collection and asks how these books are arranged, what's the common thread?
Guess, I'll say.
No matter what they guess which, of course, is never correct I tell them they're right.
I've realized that these books of yours are a magic trick, an optical illusion: one moment you're there, the next you're not.
I realized something else too: almost none of the books have a happy ending. It's not like I don't believe in happy endings, you once said, but stories are so much more interesting without them.
words: Jolie Braun, Missouri (more: + The Seeing Hand + The Woods)
image: Dorothee Lang, Germany (blueprint21)
This story is nominated as one of the top ten stories of 2009 of the Million Writers Award.
Jolie Braun 's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Elimae, BluePrintReview, and M Review. She holds an MA in English from the University of California, Davis, where she taught composition and literature. Currently she lives in St. Louis, Missouri and works in a library.
another blueprint book story: A reader's life (#11)
& more on sorting books: A to Z (#10)