This afternoon I was hauling my suitcase between temporary living spaces in Brooklyn when I nearly tripped over this pile of books, abandoned on the pavement next to some rubbish bins. They were stacked neatly, and as I went through the titles I found myself wondering whose books they were, what sort of person would have this little collection, and why they would abandon them like this. Nearly all of these books are by and about women from all over the world, some of them autobiographical, about overcoming childhood trauma and cultural dissonance. Whoever bought and read and loved these books – and they had been read, all of them, some more than once by a person not entirely careful with spines or page-corners – are these their favourite books? Were they having a clear-out? Could it simply be that they’ve bought an e-reader and they’re making space in their bedroom? Are they leaving town forever?
I was tempted to take one, as I always am when I see books abandoned, books for free, books that look tempting, like they might be full of treasures brighter and braver than the everyday world I inhabit or, at very least, have some decent smutty bits. But I’m between houses again and I’m already carrying around more books than I ought to be. I have seven in my suitcase right now. Some of them have been with me through five different countries this summer as I’ve been travelling around reporting. When nothing seems solid, books are something to cling to, and I always have, often physically. I remember when I was very small and spent a great deal of time on my own, I would always have a book open over my arm, clutched to my chest so that if I saw anything that frightened me I could instantly open it and be back in the story, the way some children won’t put their stuffed animals down.
Books are physically important. Abandoned books fascinate me; I’m always abandoning books when I’ve finished them and have too much else to carry. I like to leave them on trains, on park benches or on the tables in cafes, hoping someone needful will find them. I’d leave little notes inside if I weren’t an enthusiastic combatant in the ongoing War On Twee.
Summer is always the time when I’m most prone to depression, to stifling anxiety, to suddenly packing all my belongings into a bag and leaving in the middle of the night. Books stop you doing that. If you’ve got a serious collection, you can’t just up and leave: furniture can be replaced but a personal library, full of your ideas and memories, that’s a treasure that has to be packed into boxes and shipped. Books can stop you leaving home, if you let them, even if actually reading them makes you long to leave. Building a library is exciting and adult but it is also dangerous, especially if you do it with someone else.
Recently I was sleeping with a young man with a large and impressive personal library which utterly dominated his small room: the bed was low, and he had put up the bookshelves around it on two walls so they loomed over it. After sex, or in the small, sleepy bits of the morning tangled in week-old blankets, all you could see was those books, lovingly arranged. You woke up staring at books; you screwed staring at books; there must have been boxes and boxes worth, the whole weight of them hanging off the walls, and no matter how securely they were held it was impossible not to worry that they would fall in the night and crush you.
Me, I carry around my library in my head. I’ve just bought an e-reader and it’s liberating, but it’s not the same; not the same as carrying around a story or a history until you don’t need it anymore and passing it on, a bit battered, full of scribblings. Maybe someday I will be ready to unpack and settle, and maybe then, I’ll want books to weigh me down. Not just yet though.
The books in the pile are:
Falling Leaves, by Adeline Yen Mah
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Patchett
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen
Lipstick Jihad, by Asadeh Moaveni
Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs
Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls