To wrap up National Library Week, we revisit an essay from 2013, where a library book can be more that “just” a good story; it can also be that which binds us all together. Enjoy!
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Transience as a Library Book
So, I’m reading Jodi Picoult’s excellent novel The Storyteller (which I was finally able to pick up at the library) and I notice a disturbance on one of the pages. There is some kind of physical roughness stuck at the bottom right hand corner of page 113, and since I had been reading about baking (the main character is a baker) I immediately suspect that a former reader had raw dough, perhaps lodged under a fingernail, which had inadvertently gotten onto that page. The mark is hard and crusty now, but has the look of having very possibly once been butter and brown sugar. It is a small infraction, not one that bothered the page across from it, but stubborn. It does not brush away in my attempt to dislodge it. It feels strangely precious.
I have two immediate impressions, not really deft enough to be thoughts until I later, when I decide to actually write about this small moment. The first is a hint of irritation, that someone would be reading a library book – especially such a popular library book, one that will pass through hundreds of hands – with their hands dirty enough to leave a mark. Most of the library books I read are pretty darned pristine (except one that I read recently – The Lies of Loch Lamora – that had dog-eared pages scattered throughout, sometimes on every other page, which felt like sacrilege to me even though it was a cheap paperback copy – I may dog ear my own books for various reasons, but I would never, ever mar a book that wasn’t my own; and even though I smoothed out each crimped page that I found, I had an illogical sense of guilt that the next person who reads that book may think ill of me, assuming it was the last person to touch it that committed such a heinous crime) but occasionally one will come through with a mark. I magnanimously attribute these stray blemishes to some regrettable accident, one which no doubt caused the culpable reader great distress, but what’s done is done, and the book will survive to be read another day, so no harm, no foul.
But the other impression I have is more compelling. For a fleeting moment, I connect to that other reader, one of the almost thousand people who had requested this book ahead of me (oh, yes, it was that impressive of a queue – I had waited five months to read this book!). This other reader, this woman – for in my mind’s eye, I picture the mysterious reader as a woman – had taken in the same words I was now reading, had perhaps had the same reactions I had, had possibly experienced the same sense of awe. In just one instant, I picture her as a bit younger than me, with children at home who were elsewhere at the moment, summer school, perhaps, or at the park a few blocks away. She had been baking cookies (chocolate chip would be my guess, due to the butter and brown sugar) and had taken a moment to rest in the breezy shade of her front porch, perhaps to escape the heat of the kitchen, just after filling up yet another cookie sheet with a dozen evenly spaced lumps of brown sugary dough. Another cookie sheet with its dozen evenly spaced lumps of dough were already baking in the oven, the glorious smell begining to waft through the house. Since she has only gotten about halfway through the batch of dough she had whipped up (contained in the large, heavy Corelle ware bowl with the jaunty brown mushrooms imprinted on the side, from the set she had gotten from her aunt as a wedding gift), she simply wipes her slightly sugary hands on a dish towel rather than washing them off in the sink, and goes to spend the ten minutes left on the timer on the porch lost in prose. As she sits slightly hunched over with the library book in her hands, a tendril of light brown hair escapes from the elastic band holding her messy ponytail, and falls across her face. She absently tucks it behind an ear, even then not noticing that some stray cookie dough has lodged under her fingernails. The smell of baking cookies, and the sounds of a both the neighborhood cardinal chitting away in the nearby evergreen and kids playing and shouting in the distance don’t divert her from the few pages she sneaks in before her tasks call her away again – nor does she notice from her touch the stray dough barely smearing on page 113 because the timer is now pealing insistently. Not wanting the cookies to darken on the tray (children can be so picky!), she lays the book open on the chair as she hurries back inside, hoping to return to it after the next shift, but the summer breeze plays up a knot and rifles the pages of book, softly enough to lose her place, but not enough to press the pages together, and her kids come home unexpectedly early with a clash and a clatter, asking with large eyes and larger smiles for cookies warm from the oven. She acquiesces, as long as they also drink tall glasses of cold milk (no arguments there!), and as she putters around in the kitchen, the library book is forgotten for a time, enough time for the tidbit of dough on page 113 to harden. By the time she returns, it passes her notice and she turns the page and moves on.
Yes, all that in a fleeting moment. (I could even tell you about the floured yellow apron she is wearing over her well worn summer tank dress with the tiny rosebuds, and leggings and worn brown leather sandals, and that the chair she was sitting on is an antique rattan seated, wooden straight-backed chair which had been painted white by her own mother years ago, with a decoupage appliqué of pansies across the top span, but if I did, you might think me excessive.)
At any rate, in that split second, I get a fond feeling for the others who had read this volume before me, all those possible people who had utilized the wonderful resource that is the public library, and who had held this very book in their hands, if at least for a few days or at most a couple of weeks. It feels like a sorority of readers (or a fraternity – I’m not sure what the co-ed term would be), familiar in a love of books. How nice it would be to contact all the others who had held that particular book in their hands, and perhaps meet to discuss the effect of the novel on each of us; such a wonderful novel, bound to evoke many different feelings and memories! Wouldn’t that be fun? Then what had been a transient pleasure could actually become an even more tangible link between like minded strangers, and who knows what might come of it? Oh, the possibilities! Yes, a singular club, sans the book, just for fun, meeting together for the love of reading a damned fine story.
Maybe someone could even bring cookies.
~ Sharon Browning