Confessions of a book keeper.
By Joanne Mulcahy | I’m a bibliovore, catholic in my book choices. I use my Kindle frequently, especially for long flights when I panic if deprived of reading material. But let’s be clear: nothing will ever replace the physical book, talisman of memory and identity.
To understand why, let me take you to my childhood home, where eight people lived in too close quarters. I was perhaps nine years old when, as punishment for some infraction, my mother banished me to a corner where my family’s few books resided. From a shelf I pulled The Secret Garden. The lush green cover and image of an English girl in lacey dresses stay vivid in my mind. I would later buy a copy to preserve my own secret garden—not a place, but the recurring delight of a book in hand, read in solitude.
Then let me guide you to my bookshelves, toward the brazen red cover of Crime and Punishment. When I finger its tattered pages, I am back in the Haverford College Library, in the basement smoking room. There I discovered the Russians while skipping high school classes. I hid in the bushes when the school bus came, then walked through a neighbor’s yard to the college library. The great novelistic troika of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev lined one wall, Chekhov and Pushkin another. In the weeks before school officials discovered my truancy, I witnessed Napoleon’s travails on the Russian steppes, felt the tremors of Pierre and Natasha’s passion, and experienced the weight of Raskolnikov’s guilt. I vowed that I would one day own these books. But in the interim, I copied long passages into lined notebooks whose pages now scatter like dried leaves when opened.
When I want to remember who I was at 16, I touch those books and find myself splayed across my bed in a room with orange psychedelic wallpaper that I shared with my older sister, Pat. My friends pound at the door, cajoling me to play pinochle in the park with Vinny Mariano and the neighborhood boys. I beg my mother to tell them that I’m not home. Much as I like Vinny, I want to linger with Dmitri in The Brothers Karamazov, to ponder what he means when he says, “We are all responsible for all.” I long to tell my mother that the true meaning of religion exists not only in the Catholic Mass that I’m compelled to attend but in the miracles spilling from the pages of this tome. I don’t want to lose the thread of what I almost know. Vinny and the boys in the park might offer something unexpected—but I know for sure that a book will. This tension between the certain joy of literature and the chancy pleasure of people will plague me for life.
Those books were and remain my barrier against the world and a plumb line into another. I held fast to that line studying Russian and French literature at Penn. Finally, I had justification for buying all those books I’d coveted. Soon after graduation, I fell in love with a fisherman and moved to Kodiak Island, Alaska. I crated up the crimson Crime and Punishment, the dark blue Anna Karenina, a tattered paperback of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, and other books I would need for life at the edge of North America. Kodiak Island hosted a range of characters: hippies in Quonset huts left from World War II, fishermen seeking fortunes in king crab, and assorted refugees from “Outside.” Some still longed for markers of civilized life in the Lower 48, especially erstwhile New Englanders who pined for their antique furniture. Barges arrived in the Kodiak harbor filled with 19th-century wooden armoires the size of moose. But they were dwarfed by the towering boxes of my books.
Over the next few years, I would send those crates from Alaska to Madison, Wisconsin, to attend graduate school in anthropology, then back to Philadelphia to pursue a PhD in folklore at Penn, then to Washington, DC, to work at the Smithsonian Institution. Finally, I would drive them cross-country to Seattle and eventually to Portland, where I’ve spent the last nearly 30 years. At every new home, I accumulated more books and shed very few. (Please don’t talk to me about decluttering, a movement I find ridiculous with regard to books.) I would no more blink at the shipping costs than I do at the price of bread. Sustenance assumes many forms.
Indeed, my craving to hold a book is a kind of hunger. On a recent flight, I read An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine on my Kindle. The narrator is an aging former bookseller and translator in Beirut who only works from other translations. She never publishes her own creations, driven not by fame or money but simply by love of words. Quotes from the narrator’s treasured works litter the textual landscape. Many are my favorites as well. When she debates whether to translate 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, I cheer, Do it! She follows a description of Javier Marías’s novels with the apology, “but I digress, as usual.” Digress further, I shout. Give us more of Marguerite Yourcenar and Fernando Pessoa and Walter Benjamin. But it was the references to Bruno Schultz and Tadeusz Borowski that made me ache for my bookshelves. There sits a boxed set, Writers from the Other Europe, edited by Philip Roth. My sister Pat, now an editor, gave me the books. Despite my adolescent escape into Russian literature, I’d not encountered this unknown world, an “other Europe” sandwiched between the geographical and literary poles of Russia and the West. The courage of writers brutalized by the Nazis, and sometimes by fellow prisoners, both shattered and renewed me. The membrane that divides human beings dissolved. “We are all responsible for all.”
That feeling returned as I read Alameddine’s novel. I wanted to copy passages, frustrated that I couldn’t underline (please don’t remind me that Kindle allows this; it’s not the same). Pen in hand as the plane lurched, I jotted Alameddine’s words in my illegible scrawl:
“When I read a book, I try my best … to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book. I try to be involved. I am Raskolnikov. I am K. I am Humbert and Lolita. I am you.” And I am nine, The Secret Garden on my lap. I am 16, at my parents’ kitchen table, smoking as I turn the last page of Anna Karenina at 4 a.m. I am in the Van Pelt Library at midnight, trying to fathom Kafka’s despair and the original rejection of Nabokov’s genius in America. At each station of this ritual journey, I can find the book on my shelves, cradle it in my hands, and remember who I was. Despite my groaning bookcases, soon after the plane touches the tarmac in Portland, I head to Powell’s for a physical copy of An Unnecessary Woman.
Like the aging narrator of Alameddine’s novel, I watch my time on the earth shrink. With each year, books become more, not less important. I’ve never fully reconciled the tension between the comfort of solitary reading and that of human companionship. But books sometimes bridge that divide. I can read Alameddine’s novel alone, then press it into the hands of friends, knowing it will return to me with the invisible ink of their pleasure. I will hear their sighs and sudden laughter, and wonder which scenes evoked their response. I might imagine that they, too, fell to their knees at Alameddine’s description of Bruno Schulz, shot once in the head by the Nazis, and Federico García Lorca, shot once in the head by the Fascists but twice in the buttocks to mark him as gay. I don’t need to reread the words engraved in my heart: “When I read Schulz, I am baptized with Lorca’s dark water.” Grief gives way to wonder at how literature reaches across the globe and into each reader’s hidden chambers. I marvel at this mix of pulp and ink and magic, at once fragile and enduring, and I can hold it all in my hand.
Joanne Mulcahy C’77 Gr’88 is the author of Remedios: The Healing Life of Eva Castellanoz and the forthcomingWriting Abroad: A Guide for Travelers (with Peter Chilson).