Monday, January 22, 2007

The Secret Lives of Books

I spent yesterday cleaning and organizing my life. If I’m going to start my own business, was the thought, then I need to have a clean home to work out of, a centered place to call my own. No one cares if I work from my couch in my pajamas as long as I can find and supply the information they need, but how will I do that if my work area is a mess of scraps of paper and receipts?

And with that in mind the cleaning began.

It was a mad frenzy of clearing drawers of old clothes, organizing jewelry (I’m a bit of a magpie), and cleaning dishes. I stacked, folded, bagged, boxed, and put away item after item only to find when all was said and done that my apartment was still a scattered mess of shoes and books.

Granted, I have a weakness for these two things, and a large quantity of both, but there was no reason for me to have two pairs of heels, a pair of clogs, and a pair of loafers scattered down my hall into my living room. And there was definitely no need for every available surface to be adorned with at least one stack of books. Feng Shui, maybe, but not necessary. Not when I had a perfectly acceptable shoe rack and several sets of bookshelves just waiting to be filled.

So I set about putting them away as well. The shoes were easy, just a matter of fitting the heels correctly on the wire rack frame and condensing their use of space to a minimum. The process didn’t evoke memories so much as mental notes: these were shoes to walk in; and these to arrive, sit down immediately and be seen in (a very important difference that can save one’s arches a lot of pain).

But the books? Oh, the books. Each came with a story, an origin: a suggestion from a customer, the look of delight on a coworker’s face when this or that title arrived, the way I cried over an ending or scene. I put away the books slowly, remembering those which customers had given me as opposed to those titles loaned by friends. I shelved novel after novel whose release I’d anticipated so much that when it finally came out I holed up in my apartment, turned off the phone, and curled up on the couch to drift away for a few hours in this world or that.

There were books that I bought from my store and from others, used books who owed their dog-eared pages to an owner or two before me, and inscriptions to others lost in time. Some looked perfectly new, others yellowed, but on my shelves their jagged, chaotic order—hardback, paperback, trade, trade—warmed me inside. These were my books, my memories.

And somebody else’s memories too.

As a bookseller, I have no control of a book after it leaves my store. Where they go from there is up to fate. It may go home to an apartment down the block or travel the world via airplane or cruise. Its travels, owners and adventures are unknown to me and to anyone else who receives it second or third hand or even, in some cases, to its primary owner. Will the friend you loaned this book to give you an accounting of its time? Will they tell you about the discussion it created with a fellow passenger while they were on the bus or how they almost left it in the Laundromat? Will they explain the tiny smudge of ketchup at the end of chapter three or the small tear on page 118?

Will you even notice, or will you just put back on your shelf to be recommended to another or reread later on?

And when you eventually part ways with a title, you’ll keep that little bit of history—your history—tucked away in a corner of your mind; a secret its new owners will never fully know.

In Sayulita, a small town in Mexico, there is a tiny hotel called the Casablanca. The rooms are all bright, white stucco; woven blankets and pillows; and heavy wood tables and window frames. And in every room where the bench-seat couches meet the wall there is a tiny library created by tourists, for tourists.

They are the books left behind when the vacationers leave: nonfiction and fiction, genres aplenty. The languages reflect the former room occupants: a German mystery, a French collection of short stories, or an English copy of Guns, Germs and Steel. They are sun-yellowed, water-wrinkled and well-thumbed books that come with no rules attached.

Don’t finish the novel during your stay? Take it home.

Bought too many souvenirs? Feel free to leave your own books behind. They’ll be well-loved in your absence.

They may go on to travel the world, or maybe they did already and this is their new home; the place where they’ll live until their pages come lose from the binding or the cover is destroyed. Despite beginning in New York or London or Paris, they’ll live out the rest of their lives in a dusty little town providing entertainment to surfers and business people, adding to its history while never revealing its entirety.

Once upon a time I left a book in this hotel, a copy of The Egyptologist that I’d bought from my store in preparation for my vacation. I didn’t particularly enjoy the novel—felt the narrative technique broke down at the end—and therefore didn’t feel the covetous need to keep it with me for always. There on the third floor of the second tower, I placed the novel at the end of the row of those the hotel provided, hoping that it would find a more receptive audience in the next person who occupied my room. I don’t know if the book’s still there or if it’s moved on and found a home on someone else’s bookshelf.

I like to think that it has found the owner I could never be, or passed through more appreciative hands. Maybe it now resides on someone else’s bookshelf, relaying memories of fun and sand and sunshine whenever they shift or reread it.

I’ll never know for sure and the book will never tell, which is fine with me. A little mystery gives a girl something to imagine.

Do you have any book travel stories? Good books that traveled the world with you, or just crossed the street? What memories do you relate to the titles you kept? Those you gave away?

For those interested in tracking the history of the books they find or give away, check out


Little Willow said...

What a great post! I don't often leave books in random places, but I refer folks to BookCrossing all of the time (and I sometimes tell them about the coins in Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli). I love finding books in libraries and booksales with inscriptions, checkout cards, and dates. Before you start reading the story, you can make up a story about those previous readers.

Dawn Firelight said...

You make me want to go to that hotel and leave a book too. :-) This is the reason I prefer buying second hand books. I love holding the books in my hands, turning over the pages, wondering about the kind of 'life' it has had, who its previous owners were and why did they decide to give it up? I've given away or sold many of my own books too over the years and sometimes I like to sit back and make up stories about where they go, all the interesting people they meet and all the exciting places they go to that I might never get to see. It's a bit like having a life beyond your own.

Steve Quinn said...

Very evocative post. Your description of the tourists' library at the hotel in Mexico reminded me of a similar event. I was in Paris in 95 or 96 with my brother and best friend. A girl who'd been staying next door came to our room before checking out and asked if anyone wanted her copy of Styron's Set This House on Fire. Need I say that I gladly grabbed it? And loved it, in no small part because if where I'd gotten it?

Thanks for reminding me of that.

Steve Quinn

Orhan Kahn said...

Shoes & books scattered around your apartment, you're the true modern day woman.

Kristen Painter said...

I've left books behind in Hawaii and Spain. Both times, I was highly interested to see what others had left, what authors did or didn't make the cut.

Great post!

angelle said...

It was sometime last year that I finally realized I was trying to insulate myself from my poverty-ridden child with a wall of shoes and books. Okay, more like a mountain.

I also relaized it wasn't going to work because I couldn't eat shoes or books, and because they have intrinsic value to nobody much but me.

That realization has made it easier to let go of both of them so they can go forth to the thrift store to make somebody else happy.

All that being said, we have a great bar with a patio here that has a book exchange shelf. I try to contribute to it at least once a week, whether I need a drink or not ;-)

Eileen said...

When I lived in Europe I would stalk the train station for English books that tourists left behind. The library was all French and I couldn't afford my book habit so I would take anything left behind. I read tons of things I would otherwise never have picked up.

Mike Eberhart said...

I just found your site today, and I must admit, I really love the content you have written! Thanks for the blog!

And, I have left some books behind in LA when I flew out for vacation. I took a book on Linux with me, read it in flight, and when packing for the return flight I simply decided I didn't want, or have room for, a rather hefty 5 pound book. So, it stayed behind. Having picked it up for only a few bucks at a bargain-bookstore helped a lot with that decision :)

Victoria said...

I've just come across your site, and I love it! I am back from a vacation, and I left the book I read on the plane, on the motor boat on the way to diving sights, on the beach and everywhere else, in Angkoriana hotel in Cambodia's Siem Reap. It was David Loodge "Thinks...". I finished reading it in Thailand, but I am sooo bad in books-parting, so the book was in my backpack. I have endless shelves at home, and it's so difficult, because my little family moves around the globe almost every year. And then I am stacking my books into boxes with clothes, and kitchen supplies, and bathroom supplies, just to make it seem that I do not have too many of them, when we come to packing my shelves!

Anyway, I left that book in the hotel, but I could not part with another book, I bought on the same trip in a used bookstore in Malaysia's Georgetown, Penang. It is 'Bestseller' by Olivia Goldsmith, and I loved the book, there are thousand of quotations, and the whole publishing-surviving precess is written about greatly.

And I do love buying new books... and giving them the first turn of their story...

Fania Simon/Yesayah! said...

What a beautiful post! I just discovered your site and I am pleased.

As a writer and reader, I love all kinds of books (new and old.) However, I prefer real antique books. I really love to imagine the journey of the book before it reached my hands.

I have books from 1800's...just extra cool stuff.