I’ve always been a girl of letters. There’s a portrait in the Musee d’Orsay by Renoir called La Liseuse, The Reader, and the first time I saw it — 20 years old, in love with Paris, full of Nutella, Orangina, and cheap red wine — I felt immediately seen. I wrote a note in my tiny journal: “La Liseuse: c’est moi,” because the girl in the ruffly, high-collared smock coat with a high swoosh of reddish gold hair was absorbed so lovingly, so familiarly in the book she held that I felt an instant kinship with her. More than that: I was her, and whatever we were reading was clearly awesome.
I love books. They are perfect new, crisp and uncracked; they are wonderful bent and smudged, underlined and margin penciled. They are my favorite gift to give and to get. I’ve never really gone in much for library books. They seem too temporary, so decidedly not my own and almost impossible to love in those plastic slipcovers, slick and dirty like sweaty, covered couches. I buy books. When I remember I write my name and the date and maybe the place on one of the first pages, something my dad did on every single one of his (many, many) volumes. I’ve picked up books of his and seen the name of my college town (Evanston) or somewhere fabulous (Aix-en-Provence) and the date, and I can picture him there, then, with that book. It’s pretty sweet.
But I am trying to pare down. To simplify. I want to be tied down to fewer things. I became unsentimental fast about the things in my backpack in India, and I’m trying to hold on to the feeling of expansion that having fewer possessions brings. So yesterday I sold my books. All of the ones in the storage unit I’m trying to dismantle. Two big, big boxes and five or so smaller ones. I found I couldn’t go through the boxes because once I started to read the spines I came up with reason after reason to keep this one, that one, these two. So I took the boxes to two of my favorite stores, Spoonbill and Sugartown and The Strand, and didn’t watch as the books were unpacked, examined, stacked, or repacked. I went to the Strand last and when I got back to my car, its trunk empty, my boxes gone, I stood on the sidewalk by the freight entrance, put my sunglasses on and cried. My name is in those books and my father’s name and probably ticket stubs and boarding passes and notes in my mom’s curly handwriting (just like mine) in her ancient copy of Ulysses that I read in college. Writing about them makes me miss them, but I love thinking about them on someone else’s shelf, tucked into another liseuse's bag. We love things and then we pass them on. We fall overhead deep into a book, distracted by it to the point of drowning, and then we resurface, close it, and take deep breaths once we find another.