It started–well, hell, doesn’t it always start this way??–with an email. Simply worded, starkly phrased, politically correct (no suits would be offended or alarmed by this message), the gist of it was this: there were endangered books at the campus library, hidden in a back room.
That back room was really the Last Chance Hotel. If someone didn’t come and claim them, the trash heap was the next stop for those books.
I gasped a wrenching gasp, and my nice colleague Linda, walking by on her way to the Keurig, poked her head in to see if I was okay.
“I’m fine,” I said, smiling brightly. I hit ‘send’ to share the desperate message with my peeps in the network. I knew they, too, would respond.
It was mid-morning before I could work my way over there: I had a meeting on that side of campus; I insisted I would walk across–alone–on that beautiful day… I carried a voluminous, sturdily lined bag with me. It is a bag I keep in my office for just this purpose. It is both thick and yielding; it will not quickly reveal what it holds within.
The library was hushed at that time of day. In a far corner, a study group met, and the lowered, insistent mutter of their search for meaning simmered. But there was no other noise beyond the whir of machine, the hum of fluorescent light. One lone student worked at the circulation desk; she was someone I’d worked with before. I dropped a word; I flashed my ID. The student jumped up and grabbed a clipboard.
“Sign in,” she instructed, and she winked at me.
Yeah, right, I thought, and I winked back. Grabbing the pen, I scrawled, Mary Wollstonecraft.
The student jerked her head toward the labyrinthine nether region of the library.
“You,” she said quietly, “know your way.”
I nodded. I passed Tracey’s desk; we shared a look fraught with meaning. Amy, on the phone, kept her eyes downward, but she gave me a barely discernible thumbs up.
I wound my way through the corridors, and I found the back room.
My colleague BJ was there before me. A retired high school instructor who couldn’t break his academic habit–he now teaches a full slate of American history and western civ at the college level–BJ is an inveterate reader and a Damned Liberal. I should have known I’d find him here.
He’d been busy; as I entered, he slipped a slender volume onto a small stack on an empty corner of the table closest to the door. I surveyed the room. Books covered three rectangular banquet tables,–covered the tables, teetered in stacks, and threatened to fall off their edges.
“Oh, BJ,” I said, and he threw up his hands.
“So many books!” he said, an anguished rasp in his voice. “But–Dreiser? Henry JAMES?” He slanted me a look. “You read James?” he asked.
Then, without waiting for an answer, he added, his voice filled with remorse, “I CAN’T. I can’t take Henry James home.”
We worked in silence then, sorting and stacking. We were, between the two of us, deciding futures. We were issuing reprieves. We were leaving other tomes, perhaps even some that were infinitely more worthy than our chosen ones, to the caprice of fate.
BJ left, toting a hefty stack of books, after a fervent ten minutes.
I eked out another fifteen minutes of agonizing selection. Oh, the things I put back, hoping other hands would find and cherish them! My bag, ironically, held a biography of Wollstonecraft, whose name I’d borrowed to sign in. I also saved Lillian Hellman’s Life. Volumes of Willa Cather were hidden in my bag. I had all of Herrick’s poems. I had the nonsense verses of Edward Lear. I had a GK Chesterton omnibus, and I had a volume or two by Kay Boyle.
And I hadn’t been able to keep myself from saving An Episode of Sparrows, by Rumer Godden. It had been one of my mother’s favorite books.
I knew it was time to go when Janelle, the library’s director, walked by and coughed discreetly. I bundled everything into my bag; it was heavy and clumsy. I wrestled it to the door of the room, and I stood looking at the silent books I left behind. I saluted them; I wished them the redemption I couldn’t offer.
I wanted to say I’d be back, but I knew it was a promise I probably couldn’t keep.
I retraced my steps and hurried out the library exit. My bag set off the meep meep meep of the alarm.
I kept walking.
I didn’t stop until I’d reached my car, popped open the trunk, and gently pushed my bag full of refugees into its darkness.
I locked my car, and I went back to work, trying to be normal, trying to forget that hidden cargo. At odd times I would remember, though–I’d think about the book that had been so handled and used, read time and again, that its cover was separating from its binding. THAT book, flung onto a discard table.
Was that sadder, I debated with myself, than the pristine book, twenty years old, whose ‘date due’ card revealed it had never been checked out?
What is worse, I’d debate, book abuse or book neglect? I would ponder; I would be paralyzed by sadness.
And then the phone would ring, and I would be compelled to shake it off and trudge through my daily commitments.
My son helped me drag the bag into the house when I got home from work, and he gently unpacked the volumes onto the dining room table.
My husband came home just as we were surveying the stacks; it seemed like a healthy rescue there on my modest table, but I couldn’t stop thinking of those left behind.
“Oh,” sighed Mark, “what have you done?”
I shrugged, my eyes on the books.
“We’ve talked about this,” he began, but his voice was gentle.
I snaked out a hand; I plucked a biography of Teddy Roosevelt from the top of a stack. I thrust it at him.
Mark took the book, and he gave me an agonized look. And then he went to sit in the reading chair and pore through the table of contents.
We worked the rescued books into the shelves; the resident books sighed and shuffled and made reluctant but understanding room. I went to chop onions for the stir fry, leaving them to work things out.
Later that night, when Mark and the boy were both long in bed, I stood in the doorway of the living room and listened. The new books were softly anxious.
What will she….???
No worries, whispered the resident volumes. They all love books here.
I felt an expulsion of relief from the newcomers.
Then: Will she READ us? asked a plaintive little voice.
There was a pause, and then an answer came from the cooking memoir section.
Well, it said, she ain’t as quick now as she used to be. But yeah. I think she’ll read you.
This wasn’t my conversation. My cheeks burned at intruding. I grabbed the Father Brown Omnibus, and I took it up to the bathroom with me. In the sighing of the sleeping house, I murmured, You’re privately owned now. You have a home.
And I tried to pry off the Library of Congress sticker on its spine. The years, though, had done their work; the sticker had become part of the cover. The library years would always be evident.
Well, I ruminated, that isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Just before sleep, I checked my texts, and two of my peeps had sent photos. More books were in safe hands that night.
And we were not the only ones; there were network members whose names we’d never know, whose faces we’d never see–or people quietly walking the hallways, going about their business, whose cars held rescued cargo, waiting to be transported to a new and welcoming home. People we worked side by side with every day, hidden rescuers, keeping the words safe.
I slid into bed, and Mark rolled over to say goodnight. He sensed, I knew, my sadness. He murmured, “You just can’t save them all.”
The Roosevelt bio rested on his bedside table, a marker thrust into its pages, one quarter of the way in.
He’s right, I know: we can’t save them all. I thought of the left-behind books in that dark back room. I tried to block out the strident voice of a gleeful pharisee who’d once explained to me that the unclaimed books were ground up to make bedding for cows.
Cow bedding! Don’t TELL me this, I pleaded.
And then, in the quiet dark, I heard a whisper, a whisper that wound upstairs from the bookshelves in the living room, a whisper emanating from the books I’d brought in that day.
HOME, hissed the whisper. We are HOME.
Yes, I thought, yes! You are home, and safe. Safe for the time. Safe as we can make you, safe as hardcover books can be in a digital age.
I pulled the blanket around me. I drifted off to sleep.
The next morning I got up and went to work. And I carried with me that capacious, sturdy bag. Who knows when the next call will come, or the next email arrive.
I cannot predict the day or the hour. I can only know that, when it does, I’ll be ready.