Some Saturday afternoons they sort through books and magazines. “What have we read?” they ask themselves. “What will we never read?” Or–“Is there anything in this magazine–recipe, directions, fascinating article–that bids me keep it?”
Depending on their answers, they put the literature back on the shelf or in one of a series of bags. The bags go in the trunk of the car, and they–Dell, Martin, and their son Jack,—go to a used bookstore. The trip is always an adventure.
The store is 50 miles away, snugged up against one of their favorite chain coffee shops in a suburban strip mall.
Once they snag a good parking space, they drag their bags of books inside and onto a special counter where pierced and tatted clerks, gently smiling, take down their information, comment joyfully on the books on top of their stacks, and send them off to shop. The clerks will sort through the books and periodicals, apply a secret formula, and call them back to the counter.
Dell and Martin always let Jack take the earnings, which, depending on what they’ve brought and the secret formula’s results, could be anywhere from two bucks to twenty. (One time, when a big cache included DVD’s and video games, Jack raked in 82 dollars.)
While they wait for the PA system to call Jack to the counter, they separate. Martin goes right to the history section. Jack goes off to the movies or the manga.
Dell heads to the clearance area, where hardcovers are two dollars and paperbacks, a buck.
“I don’t have to buy anything,” she reminds herself. But there are wonders on the clearance shelves, and soon she finds herself wandering to the front of the store to get a basket. There is a copy of Helen Hooven Santmyer’s And Ladies of the Club. There is an Elizabeth Peters to fill a gap in the series she’s collecting; Amelia Peabody is a secret, guilty pleasure. Ruth Reichl, MFK Fisher, a biography of Julia Child. Chris Bohjalian, a Miss Read book, some Trollope she’s never read and always meant to.
It is like the books beckon her; there is very little active searching required on her part. They call to her, lure her to where they wait. There is nothing sadder, nothing more poignant to Dell, than a good book stuck on a clearance shelf.
She goes home, always, with at least one sackful of wonders. She puts them on her ‘to read’ shelf. Soon, that shelf is full. It overflows into the regular bookshelves.
Then a dear friend, Lacey, cleans out her parents’ home; those gracious readers are moving to assisted living. Every room in their 3000 square foot home has burgeoning bookshelves.
“I know,” Lacey says to herself, “who’d love to read these books!” And she packs up box after box of wonderful tomes, totes them to Dell’s house, stacks them up on her back stoop.
“We could just take them and cash them in,” suggests Martin hopefully, but Dell cannot help herself. She lifts the cardboard flaps of the top box.
Oh my goodness. There is a lovely hard-cover copy of Anne of Green Gables and two volumes of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s letters and journals. There are Susan Wittig Albert books, books by Ian McEwan and Shirley Jackson. There are biographies of such unrelated people as Mickey Mantle, Zane Grey, and Patti Smith.
There is nothing here she could give away before reading. She drags the boxes inside. She crams books into every nook and cranny.
“Houston,” says Martin, “we have a problem.”
At night, when the house is settled and the day’s obligations met, she takes a library book and melts into the reading chair in the corner of the living room. She always has a stack of library books: brand new reads that friends have recommended, or the latest in a mystery series she loves, or a book that she has always meant to read that just jumped out at her while she was waiting for Jack to choose his movies. She looks forward to losing herself in whatever it is, shutting out the world completely, escaping for an hour.
But now it’s become hard to escape. There are mutterings all around her; the books on the shelves are restless, jostling. They talk to each other.
“All of us here and she’s reading LIBRARY books,” Dell thinks she hears. There is an ominous cloud of unhappiness that seeps out from the overcrowded bookshelves. It destroys her concentration.
“Martin,” she says, “here’s what I’m going to do. I am going to stop taking out library books until I have read all of the books on my shelves. And to keep myself honest, I am going to start a blog. Every Wednesday, I will write about what I’m reading.”
Martin supports this idea enthusiastically. He has only a short stack of waiting books; he does not take Jackie to the library, so he doesn’t have the temptation of the Newly Arrived Books shelf. Dell’s books whisper to him, too, though; they cramp and distress his reading.
“Go for it!” he says.
Dell starts a blog, determined.
She takes all her library books back, and whens she returns home empty handed, she feels a quickening, a sense of pleasure, from her bookshelves. She clears a space on her dining room cupboard, and she grabs, randomly, the first five books she hasn’t read.
“This,” she tells Martin and Jackie, “will be my To-Read spot.”
The books on the To-Read spot preen. There is a tiny exhalation, a sigh of patient disappointment (“At least we know she’s working her way to us!”) from the bookshelves.
And Dell reads. She reads fluffy romance novels and gripping spy stories and sweeping family sagas. She reads biography and autobiography and several books of essays. She reads short stories and she reads letters. She reads about the environment and she reads about the circus.
In between, in the nooks and niches, she reads poetry.
She takes Jack to the library, marches straight back to the periodical section, and leafs through Ladies Home Journals while he browses the DVD’s.
At home, the shelves are lightening. She reads the five books in the To-Read spot, then grabs five more. There are books she’s completed that go back on the regular shelves, alpha by author: these are keeper books. The other books she’s finished get stacked to go to the used book store. The only thing she buys there, though, on their weekend adventures, are gift books–gifts not for herself, mind you, but for other people.
On Wednesday nights, she sits down and writes about what she’s read that week, sorts out her thinking, twines the reading around her life. There is a humming satisfaction from the books on her shelves, and a palpable anticipation. They know she’s coming for them, if not tonight or tomorrow, then soon. Soon, compadre!
It’s good, it’s good, it’s good. Dell is reading the books on her shelves.
One Tuesday night, she takes Jack to the library, and suddenly she becomes aware that the library books are beckoning. Some–the romances and the action thrillers–are blatant and ineffective. The romances sigh and writhe on shelf tops. The thrillers run along ledges and make popping noises.
“Oh, please!” she thinks scornfully, but the books have her attention. She starts back toward the periodicals as Jack slips into the graphic novel stacks. But the other books, the more subtle ones, are waiting for her.
They send words flying up into the air, where they flutter a minute, re-direct, and land at her feet.
“Witty,” she reads. That word nods her on to another.
Wait–that sounds interesting–witty, supernatural stories. Dell steps forward again, toward–
She is at the new books. Hey–how about that?
She is lost.
She goes home with the new compilation of Shirley Jackson’s writing, with Lisa Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, and with Early Warning by Jane Smiley. They are fattish books, sleek and attractive, and, she realizes, they are just a little bit smug. When she walks in and puts them on the to-read shelf, she hears a gasp from the plainer, less flashy books waiting on her shelves.
As she turns her back to her shelved books, she hears a series of page-ish sighs. There is a wrenching, audible whimper.
I’m sorry, she whispers. I’m sorry.
But there’s a rule she’s always lived by, since she was a tiny, new reader: if you start a book, you MUST finish it. She has fallen off the wagon, yes: she has crimped her reading plan. But she will read the library books; the borrowing is as good as a promise.
That night she sinks into her reading chair with Lisa Atkinson, but she feels the waves of disapproval and disappointment emanating from the shelves. She takes the book upstairs to her bedroom, closes her door firmly, and crawls under the blankets, which she pulls protectively around her,
She reads the library books, yes, but quickly, and most of the reading is done at Starbucks, in the cozy chairs, away from the hum and rumble of her bookshelves. As soon as she closes the cover on reading, she runs the book to the library, puts it in the bookdrop.
The library pile dwindles to two–she hears a haughty sniff–to one (there: a distinct humph), and finally, all three books are returned.
It takes a day, a full day, before she knows the shelves have forgiven her. She picks out five more books at random, puts them in the To-Read spot, and feels the settling-in of approval.
“C’mon, guys,” she mutters. “It could have happened to ANYone.”
There is silence as she settles in her reading chair. She pulls the afghan up and she opens a Louise Penny mystery, and she loses herself, engrossed. It is 90 minutes later when she sighs and unwraps the afghan, turns off the lights, heads upstairs to the bed.
Halfway up, she hears something, indistinct but insistent. She goes back down, sticks her head into the living room.
From the bookshelf, a tiny voice peals firmly, “Don’t let it happen AGAIN.”
She stands for a moment and gazes at her shelves. It feels like every waiting book is staring at her, its arms crossed, an eyebrow raised. Dell shakes her head.
I’ll never write about THIS for my blog, she thinks.
She heads upstairs, to the room where Martin snores placidly, buoyed by the approval of her books.