“I collected books, but I didn’t commit to them.”
By Rachel del Valle | A few days before graduation, I was walking through campus with my parents, heading over to the hip burrito shop on 44th Street. My mother said that she wanted to go to the bookshop, “to say goodbye to the cat.” I’m fairly certain that my mother, and the cat who lives in The Last Word Bookshop on 40th Street, have spent fewer than 45 minutes of their respective lives in the same vicinity. But I was in no rush to go back to my half-empty apartment. So I agreed.
The Last Word Bookshop smells like yellowed pages. The shelves stretch up nearly to the ceiling, stacks of unsorted tomes rise from the floor, and a black and white cat circles through. It is exactly what a used bookstore should be. No one asks you if you need help finding something, no one cares if you sit on the ground. There’s never more than three or four other shoppers with you. It opens at 10 a.m. and often closes later than 10 p.m, despite posted hours that describe a shorter business day. I’ve never noticed it closed, though I must have walked past it dozens of times when it was.
When I arrived at Penn as a 17-year-old, I decided it would be my place. I’d like to say the cat won me over, but that’s not true. I think it was just the smell.
At the beginning of every semester, I would dutifully drop in, get what titles I could from my course syllabi, decline a bag at the checkout, and head home. Sometimes I would scan the spines on the fiction shelves, thinking I’d have time to read something later. I didn’t recognize many of the authors. They didn’t mean anything to me yet. They were like clues on Jeopardy that seemed obscure just because I didn’t know the answers. I hadn’t yet learned about Wilkie Collins and Thomas Pynchon and Ann Radcliffe and Kurt Vonnegut. Terms like heteronormative and cultural capital were not yet in my vocabulary. I still had so many ideas waiting to be handed to me. It’s strange to think now that other people had known them all along.
Critical reading, as a concept, seemed uncomplicated to me. I thought I’d mastered it. But though the SAT tests reading comprehension, it is by no means comprehensive. It takes much more than margin notes to chew a text. For years, I’d just been swallowing books whole.
Maybe that was why, in the beginning of college, I didn’t like to read that much. It was a difficult thing for me to accept. I felt like a fraud. But the act of reading demanded an attention that I was unable to find as a teenager. I was too distracted by other things to set aside time to scoop up sentences and squint at them. It was easier for me to get lost in writing words than in reading them.
I collected books, but I didn’t commit to them. I saved them for later, hoarding them like hotel shampoo bottles. I had a collection of Chekhov’s plays, the new translation of Madame Bovary, The Portable Dorothy Parker. Every now and then, I would glance at these books, and dozens of others, imagining a time when I’d have daylight through a window and no responsibilities. That’s when I would read.
I don’t think I’ve ever really had that sense of moment-to-moment awareness, and the ability to truly focus on something that I wasn’t being graded on, until now, as a fresh graduate. I’d call it doldrums, but the feeling isn’t bad. Most days, I’m in my home, without a car, without friends in walking distance, without a job. I’m just here with myself, in a sunny house, surrounded by books.
It’s true that, when I was a student, especially in the early years, the days were crowded. There were classes in the morning, babysitting, a meal, and studying spackled into the gaps in between. Had I given half of the time I spent staring at a screen when I didn’t have to, to staring at a page instead, I would have gotten through a good deal of my unread stacks. At least the Chekhov.
As I paced up and down The Last Word’s narrow lanes, following the cat, I was hit with a pang of something that wasn’t quite nostalgia. That wasn’t the emotion, because I never ended up spending as much time in the bookstore as I thought I would. I was overcome by a craving for armfuls of the books around me, wishing I had the space in my suitcases to take them all. I wanted time, too. I felt regret for what could have been. I had never aged into the image I’d had of myself as a college student.
For one, I hadn’t spent nearly as much time as I’d pictured playing Scrabble with friends. I didn’t spend more than a week’s time altogether in the Van Pelt stacks. I didn’t win a shelf of awards or attend nearly as many speaker events as I should have. I didn’t volunteer enough of my time, learn enough Middle Eastern history, or take a drawing studio.
But I did become a bit of a regular at a local coffee shop. I did write, and not just for classes. Instead of being a reporter, I became a columnist. Instead of being a history major, I became an English one. I did find friends, good friends. I can count them on my fingers. Now they’re all dotted up and down Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.
Not so long ago, as my time in college approached its end, I was sitting in my apartment with these friends on a Sunday night. There were bodies in seats and on the ground. I felt a completeness, a strange sense of accomplishment, in having them all in one place. I’d met them all in different places, and now they were all here.
I thought of all the circumstances that had created the ensemble, the flukes of class scheduling, housing assignments, and seating choices. By a lucky arrangement of logistics, I had become very comfortable where I was, even as I knew it would all be disassembled in a number of months.
As April dwindled into May, the afternoons felt shorter, even though I knew that, objectively, they were growing longer. Every scrap of an hour spent alone felt like a waste. I would have plenty of time to be by myself after I left Philadelphia.
On the Wednesday before graduation, a friend and I had a picnic on High Rise Field. For weeks, weather and availability had been postponing our picnic plans. But this particular Wednesday was warm and wide. So I tossed strawberries, a blanket, and a recently acquired copy of 55 Short Stories from The New Yorker into a plastic bag and headed toward the green. My friend and I stayed out there a long time, until the day faded. We talked, reclined, ate. I never got around to opening the book.