On my shelves are dozens of unread books. Some are gifts, books I never wanted and feel little obligation to read. Most of the unread books, however, I acquired myself, and purposefully, not by chance, as when you pick up a book that might be interesting in the bargain bin, not knowing whether you want it or not. No, these books I’m thinking of are books I desired and had made an effort to acquire. Often, I knew the book by reputation, and so had, you might say, a foot in the door. It was a place I wanted to enter. And yet, I didn’t; they sit untouched, gathering dust.
A new acquaintance mentioned an author to me via email—sent an excerpt—and, thanking him, I confessed I had a book by that same author, acquired in grad school and still on my shelf unread. Maybe I’d get around to it now, I wrote. My acquaintance wrote back that, like me, he had one of this author’s books on his shelf, also unread. He too said this might be the year to read it.
“There is no Frigate like a Book,” says Emily Dickinson, “To take us Lands away.” But what can we say of the books still moored in port? The untested might draw water and provide a soggy, tiresome, or plain unpleasant voyage. They might list in funny ways and bear you places you don’t want to go. Or break apart and leave you stranded on inhospitable shores. Or so you might reason, unwilling to trust the conveyance. But is the reasoning good? The joy of a book is that you can bail at any time, flounder your way back to where you were, come up from the depths, blink, and look around to find yourself safe in your own living room after an adventure, as Alice does, a bit cross, a bit surprised, exactly as before. Or can you? Is it fear of never getting back to the same shore that stops me?
I like that possibility—of being changed. And of caution in presenting myself for change. But I don’t believe in change that comes as sudden illumination; I think rather than caution, it’s laziness that stops me. I’ll be tired out by the voyage. When I return, I’ll be a day older and no wiser. So why do it? It’s the feeling I have on contemplating a party—or even a dinner out: why do it when it’s so much easier to stay home? It’s not that I don’t admire or appreciate my friends, but that it’s much easier to put up their photo on the wall than go visit or have them come visit me. With the photo, you can turn away whenever you grow weary, no need to be polite.
When I bought the unread books, though, I was ready to discover those lands away, as the givers of books must think I still am, though nowadays it’s enough to view the fleet. Tucked in their berths, in their slips, like old friends, like family. In fact, they are family. I spot the spine of Sue Hubble, and my mother comes into view. Christmas 2016, in Gijón. It would be her last visit, she declared, sitting at the kitchen table with glass of wine and bowl of anchovy olives. The Tree, my mother, The Magician’s Book, too, and If You Want to Write.
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, my stepmom, giving me the book on a visit to the States. The Hills of Tuscany, my dad, leaving the book after a visit to me. God in Search of Man, an old boyfriend. In Tearing Haste, another old boyfriend. There, a book on Spain, my uncle. The God of Small Things, girlhood friend. A book in French, my brother. There he is again, Zen in the Art of Archery. And again, popping up, grinning at me: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. And the latest: How to Read and Why, also from my brother. He, like me, is a great believer in reading but with scant time for it himself.
And here, with Nabokov’s lectures, am I, St. Louis, circa 1985. And again, several years ago with David Constantine, and here, a few years earlier, with the second volume of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy. And there, A Natural History of the Senses, in 1990, hair in a ponytail, green Levis, Woolrich flannel shirt, rushing to class and thinking that when I’m done I’ll slow down and read something, something brand new from Fact and Fiction, something I’ve splurged on for just that moment when energy, interest, and freedom coincide. The kind of moment of dawning possibilities, when opening a book is a step forward, into adventure, and adventure gives you a rush of energy, and you can already almost feel a sea breeze. When the spray in your face will be a thrill.
The Spanish say el mundo es un pañuelo, the world is a handkerchief, to express how small the world is. Right here, books all around, family and friends everywhere, I’d say it is. My eye moves along a shelf as if along a quay, from one book to another on this quiet adventure of a quiet day with my far-flung family and friends, right here at home, no packing necessary.
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