The Long Read – Carla Baricz reflects on an Eastern European family affair with books
A few days before New Year’s, I was awakened from deep sleep by the slow, shuddering groan of the bookshelves. The ceiling shook briefly, and the stale tea sloshed in the cup on the bedside table. The books inched forward slowly on the shelves, and then, when the dogs outside had stopped howling, silence descended again on the block of flats. I was spending the holidays at my grandparents’ home in Suceava, a small town in Bukovina, close to the Ukrainian border. It was the first earthquake of the season.
The fear of earthquakes has followed me all of my life. Like all young children attending primary school in post-communist Romania, I learned about the Vrancea seismic zone early on, and like my friends, I spent much of my childhood worrying that I would die “in the next big one.” My fear, however, was of a rather peculiar nature. It had, one might say, an epicenter of its own. No, unlike my friend Catrinel, I did not fear dying in the stairwell while trying to run down from a sixth floor apartment. Nor did I fear the walls caving in and burying me under a mountain of rubble and soup pots, as my friend Cristina kept assuring me would happen to all of us sooner or later. Nor did I fear – as had my mother – being home alone with a bedridden elder and a brand new pair of ice-skates and having to carry both to safety on my back, like some sleep-befuddled Aeneas, while the earth shook violently (which it did, and she did, in 1977, during the earthquake that claimed 1,578 lives and injured more than eleven thousand people). No, my fear was more irrational. I feared that during the next category seven, which the gaggle of relatives who came to weekly tea insisted was long overdue, the bookshelves in our home would fall on top of me as I slept and crush me to death.
The shelves in question were ostentatious and impossible to move, part of a set that had once belonged to my grandparents and that had stood in their day-room since time immemorial. They were sturdy, floor-to-ceiling, oak living room pieces stacked three rows deep with summer and winter comfort reads, books that made their long migration from the high shelves to within reach and back every few months, beginning with the descent of Agatha Christie and Margaret Mitchell in the spring and ending with that of Mann and Balzac in the winter. And one day, I thought, the greats and the not-so-greats who made their yearly pilgrimage to the bedside table would descend one last time, suddenly, violently, like the three trumpeting angels in Hans Memling’s Last Judgment and usher me to hell. The books would survive the great shaking of the earth and heavens. I, however, would be no more.
For years, I blamed my absurd fear on the relative frequency of earthquakes in Romania, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to realize that it is not the earthquake itself that scares me most but the idea of being buried alive under the weight of so many books, of being suffocated and battered to death by the thing I love most. In hindsight, this probably means that I am not so different from my forbearers. The phobia of being drowned in, crushed under, flattened, and betrayed by books has a long history in the imagination of my family and may in fact be a malady that we all share to some extent. This partially has to do with the places in which we have made our home and partially with the fact that we have always lived with books: on the one hand, we have always inhabited the damp, cold, miserable margins, surviving on the jagged edges of cultural tectonic plates that have variously been defined as the civilized and the barbaric, the empire and the hinterland, the superpower and the killing fields, adrift in a territory whose cartographic denomination has changed with every new conquest and invasion. On the other hand, books have always defined the course of our lives in these places and in most cases have been the sole thing that we have left behind, the single trace of who we once were and how we once thought. They have been our sole possession and sole creed in the years in which the powers-that-be banned local languages, appropriated private property, and bulldozed churches. We accumulated books across the months and years, guiltily piling them up between four secret walls, while outside the world went on in its own bad way, so that, over time, like white and egg-yolk galt, they began to form sediments and deposits of marlstone across every available surface, slowly shutting out the light of mornings and afternoons and giving us the impression of being very far down, in a world apart. If one were inclined towards fatalism, one might say that in their very power to help us disown the everyday, they also predicted the future destruction of those of us who became too closely involved with them.
My great-great-grandfather was the first in my mother’s family to suffer from bibliomania and the first to fall prey to the curse of owning paper. His father, Leon, and his father before him, Costache, as well as his five brothers, were all farmers, strong peasant men who toiled in vineyards and orchards of Bukovina, who plowed the fields, made their own beer, butter and bread, wove their own linen, and cut their own wood. But Dumitru was different. In the 1890s he had taught himself to read with the help of the village priest, and to use the word that Sir Thomas Wyatt found so apt to describe the fickle hearts of women, he delighted in “newfangleness.” Dumitru was fickle and acted – as his brothers continuously pointed out when they scolded him – like a shy old maid. He had begun quite modestly, by collecting heaps of newspapers which he would read to his outspoken, cheerful wife, Aristiţa, who at such times uncharacteristically fell victim to short bouts of silent bafflement. What good did it do to amass papers when the wood stove needed fuel and the cheap, ink-smeared paper lined the soles of shoes so well? The mounds took up space, the damp settled in the pages, and they became musty and smelled putrid. The cows itched to be milked, the hay wouldn’t gather itself, and the butter needed churning. But Dumitru was insistent. His brothers wrote it off as part of his difference, the same difference that had made him blond and blue-eyed when the rest of the family was dark haired and dark eyed, all resembling each other to such a degree that people immediately could tell they were of Puiu stock. Unfortunately, the devil seemed to have gotten the upper-hand in the making of their relative. Or, perhaps, as they privately speculated, Dumitru was a changeling, a fairy child in another’s cradle.
Nevertheless, as time went by, Dumitru became known in the village for his book learning, and people who were too shy or too poor to go to the priest or the village teacher came to him to have their letters written and their bills of sale deciphered. The ability to read and write on demand earned him a certain grudging respect in the community and came to have a direct bearing on his role in the events of December 1918, one of the proudest moments in the village’s history. A few weeks before Christmas, Dumitru had announced that he had been chosen as part of the delegation that would represent Bukovina at the great gathering in the old Roman castrum of Apulum (by then the city of Alba Iulia), where the union of Transylvania, newly ceded by the Central Powers, and the Romanian state, at that time made up of Wallachia and Moldavia, was to take place. He was familiar with the post-war treaties from the papers, and the priest had given his blessing, for the village needed to send an educated man to represent them, and there was no one else. Nevertheless, the family took it badly, seeing in the great honor only the latest and most troubling sign of Dumitru’s madness, so his wife told him in no uncertain terms that he was prouder than a rooster and mad as a bat, and that she washed her hands of him forever and abandoned him to the care of God, who knows and sees all.
And perhaps He did, because after Dumitru traveled to Alba Iulia on the first of December to witness the making of Greater Romania, he promptly returned to his wife and began collecting papers with a delirious zest. There was no stopping him after the Union. Books were hard to come by and expensive, but scraps of books, almanacs, and pamphlets, that could be found. He became an eccentric in his old age, so that after he left at dawn to work the land with his brothers, he would come home for his supper and settle with his scraps next to the hearth, perching still and silent like an old heron on the small joint-stool he had fashioned himself, his papers in his lap. He was proud to read and write in the national language, the language which all of his family spoke but no one besides him knew how to read or write. He lived a long life, surrounded by his ever-growing and moldering piles, which seemed to slip like packed snow and pile in corners and drift in cold gusts until all of the surfaces in the house became littered with the powdery scraps of crumbling print. He survived the Germans, the Russians, the arrival of the communists, and the collectivization of the village in which he had lived all his life, only to die hunched over his stool one fine spring morning. In death, in his white suman and in his iţari, bound tightly at the ankle with the cords of his black opinici like two large Os crisscrossed by trembling Xs, he shriveled up like a crumpled page. Wads of old newsprint filled out the opinici, compensating for his feet that, in death, had shrunk more than two sizes.
And yet of all his brothers Dumitru was the least happy. God blessed him with five daughters and a son whom he loved more than life itself and who had come late, almost too late. Ştefan, however, died from pneumonia the year he turned eighteen, at last a man. And like old Lear, Dumitru was left only with daughters. People said that so many daughters in need of a dowry and no son to carry on the family name was a clear sign that the Almighty disapproved. The papers had dried Dumitru up. They had flattened him into the white sheet that in death covered him. They had cursed his line.
A small enveloped tucked away in the fly-leaf of Fernando Trias de Bes’ Tinta, which sits on the top shelf of the bookcase that I fear will crush me to death one day, belongs to him. Inside is the snowy New Year’s card he sent in 1955 to his favorite daughter, whom he had named Artemisia, after Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt. It was penned on December 28, sixty-one years to the day of the most recent earthquake. The hand scratching the words trembles, it hesitates over its “a”s and insists painfully on “yours,” but spells its owner’s name proudly. It wishes her much happiness.
A Fallow Life
Artemisia was my great-grandmother, beautiful, unruly, and proud like all the women in our family. She was also the first and only daughter to sit at Dumitru’s knee and so inherit his malady. She wanted to know, to see, and to be more than her sisters and parents had known, seen, or been, and once her father had taught her to read, there was no more talk of her marrying a sturdy peasant like her grandfather and uncles.
She herself had anticipated the possibility and worked to prevent it. In her late teens, she fell in love with a handsome, soft-spoken young man who, like her father, liked to read. He was going to be a teacher; he was going to leave the village and study at the university in Bucharest, hundreds of kilometers away. She loved to hear him read out loud to her, and he loved trying to teach her French. They both loved memorizing poems. In the spring in which she turned seventeen, he wooed her with words. He was thoughtful and tall, and he played the violin and bound his own books. She enticed him with her looks, for she was dark-eyed, intelligent, and swift-footed like her namesake. She asked him to marry her. Their happiness, however, was brief.
Like Dumitru and his wife, Alexandru and Artemisia were unlucky. The pair only had two daughters, Cecilia and Luminiţa. Alexandru has been first in his class at the Scoala Normala in Botoșani, and he had gotten through most of the new war that was just like the old war (except that people were hungrier and poorer) by working as a school teacher in the village. He had eventually even managed to secure a place at the university to complete his pedagogical studies. He was the first in his family to finish his schooling. In 1941, he had gone off with a parcel of food and a few blank notebooks to the distant capital in the Wallachian plains. He had left with nothing but came back with a satchel of his own, the family’s founding satchel. He had also returned with a diploma; he was a certified pedagogue. Alexandru studied history, philosophy, literature, French, and the history of religions. He passed all of his examinations. However, by 1943, he had been called to the front, and he had decided to go with his pupils, as he had promised. He would not leave them – pimply, inexperienced, barely old enough to work the fields – to die alone.
That winter, when my grandmother, Cecilia, was nine, the snow came up to the windows, and the wood stove did nothing to allay the cold. In December, just after he had collected his teaching license, Alexandru was deployed to Bessarabia to fight against the invading Russians. The snow was coming down thick at the windows, and the village beyond their foggy outline looked like a sheet of paper. The entire world was a blank page that, like my next line, had not yet been filled in with what was to come. My great-grandfather kissed his daughters goodbye and shut the door firmly behind him. He would never open it again. He died in early January 1944, his head severed by a shell at the battle of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, at the so-called “White Fortress” on the bank of the Dniester. He was buried in a mass grave whose location was never identified. By the summer, Romania had changed sides and joined the Allies. No one wanted to remember the bloodshed that had preceded the tenuous friendship, and besides, the Russians had annexed Romanian Bessarabia.
Artemisia cried herself to sleep every night. She cried herself to sleep while being evacuated and while starving with her daughters as a refugee in Şerbauţi. She cried herself to sleep when she returned to her home town and out of desperation took a job as a teacher in a war orphanage and then again, when she realized that her daughters were still starving, that the village was being collectivized, and that she would have move to the city. She cried herself to sleep when she applied for the position of clerk at the brand new Libraria Noastră (Our Bookshop), which had opened in the nearby town of Suceava and when she was given the job, for all the men who might replace her had died in the war. Then she took up her post and gathered her books around her.
Artemisia would work at Our Bookshop until retirement. Those were hard years. Books were expensive, and in Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej’s Stalinist utopia their habitual perusal had become an activity to be regarded with suspicion. Nevertheless, Artemisia continued to read voraciously, and she saved the best new works for her daughters, whom she taught what her father and her husband had taught her. She saved the rare editions, the works whose printings amounted to only a few hundred copies, the Kafkas, Dostoevksys, and Prousts that made life worth living. Like Dumitru, she lived many years, long enough to see the communists turn her village, Rișca, in the commune of Movila Rupta, into an artificial reservoir for the Prut River. Everything she had ever known was wiped away by the deluge orchestrated by the dictatorship that played God. She never remarried, though she sometimes dreamed that she was drowning in a torrent of books whose lines were always penned in her husband’s hand. She is the Anchises whom my mother carried down the stairs in the great earthquake of 1977, outliving by many years the person whom she held dearest, just like her father before her. The last time I saw her, she was hunched over her walker in the living room. It was night. The books stood silent and watchful on their shelves.
The Same River, Twice
Nevertheless, since past and present meet seamlessly in memory’s cabinet of curiosities, it is still the third day of Christmas, seventy-three years to the day of the earthquake before New Year’s 2017. My great-grandfather, Alexandru, is passionately kissing his young wife goodbye in the vestibule, as he promises to return before the end of the month. Dumitru has not yet written his letter, the communists have not yet arrived, the village priest is still alive and cursing the Slavic hordes who are going to steal his brand-new watch and desecrate the cemetery, and Artemisia has not yet told her eldest daughter in a tremulous, faltering voice that the books that gave her the love of her life then took him away to his pupils and his duty. I am making Alexandru’s favorite linden tea, and as I wait for the water to boil, I approach his shelves and read the titles one by one. He has organized them alphabetically so that, in his absence, Artemisia should find everything with ease. Here is the third edition of The History of Pedagogy: The Fundamental Doctrines, edited by G.G. Antonescu for Editura Cultura Romanească in 1939. The essays on John Locke and Goethe are spectacular, though the sections on Pestalozzi, Frőbel, and Herbert Spencer leave something to be desired. My great-grandfather has underlined the “Sturm und Drangperiode” assiduously. He believes, like Goethe, that “education must take place not from the outside inwards, but from within outwards, meaning that the purpose of education must not be imposed upon the individual by external circumstances but must arise from the individual soul of he who is educated.” Here, too, is the travelogue of the Macedonian-Romanian Nicolae Batzaria, prosaically titled From the World of Islam and published in 1922 for Editura “Ancora,” Alcalay & Calafateanu, with a preface by the great scholar Nicolae Iorga. The binding is Alexandru’s work: careful, delicate, the quires snug and pliant in the palm. The Turks, as he knows, are a dastardly lot, but their faith is ancient, complex, and worth studying. Here, too, in a similar homespun binding, is one of his student notebooks. I peruse its catalog. In 1943, we own 3,443 lei’s worth of books. There are sixty-nine titles, each purchased with care, after many sacrifices. Here is the Nibelungenlied, here are Tolstoy, Freud, and Baudelaire, here is everything available to a young man of modest means who had grown up in the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in an illiterate household.
Most of the contents of Alexandru’s inventory will not survive the refugee crisis of 1944 and Artemisia’s frantic moves to the various camps for displaced persons. But a few of the books that I believe will crush me to death one day are his. They sit on their shelves, waiting for his hand to caress their spines.
“Madame Bovary c’est moi”
My grandmother inherited her father’s wide, laughing blue eyes and her mother’s quick manner. She grew up an orphan in the nearby city to which her mother had moved in the forties and spent her childhood in Our Bookshop. She grew up among the books, grew with them and from them, like a beanstalk that had become one with its Jack. However, like her parents and her grandparents, she was unhappy. She was poor and hungry and spent her university years in Bucharest perpetually sneaking in and out of the dormitory cafeteria where her friends gave her their extra portions of slop. She had neither money for clothes nor books, which is why, when she finished medical school, she weighed less than sixty kilos and why, later on, she bought both compulsively, as though, if she did not purchase a novel or a hat immediately, it would disappear forever.
Sometimes novels and hats did disappear. As in her grandfather’s time, good books were scarce and clothing hard to find and of poor quality. She lived without many things, perpetually cold in the winter, huddling under the thin mattress she used as an extra blanket when the authorities turned off the heat, perpetually sweltering in the summer, when her matchbox flat felt like a scorched oven, perpetually outraged in all seasons at the two daily hours of television propaganda the state rationed to each citizen. Nevertheless, she became a dedicated and brilliant pediatrician, an army lieutenant who completed the mandatory military service with commendations, and for a time, a knowledgeable and eloquent lecturer at the local post-secondary nursing institute.
Like a certain Emma Rouault from the provinces, she married a man who seemed to resemble the hero of a romance. She had read too many novels, and the Brontës had told her that men were dashing and honorable, even if not always of sound body and mind. When, at the end of their university studies, her future husband threatened to hang himself if she did not accept his suit, claiming that he could not live without her and that she was the love of his life, she relented. He seemed handsome enough and appropriately haunted by a painful past. The match, however, did not prove to be a success. He drank, slowly, methodically, as though the answer to all of the world’s questions could be found at the bottom of an unwashed shot glass. He was boorish, violent, and often depressive. As a public health inspector, he spent weeks away, came home late, stumbled on the stairs, shouted and cursed, and spent his paychecks before he had collected them. And she lived in the world inside her head, the world that had both made the unlikely match between her and my grandfather a reality and that prevented her from enjoying what little personal happiness could be found in the most restrictive socialist republic in Eastern Europe.
On the eve of the earthquake, I am cataloguing her library, which has put down roots in the living room and, more recently, has sprouted tendrils and shoots in the bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen, the hallway cupboard, and even in the dressers and bureaus. Not a single room has been left untouched. I take stock. Here, for example, is a large, 1975 folding map of the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia. The traveler is urged to explore the “modern neighborhoods” of Prague and the lovely “monuments to the progressive history of the working class.” Here, too, next to pirated editions of Bohumil Hrabal and of Hašek’s Good Soldier, are Jan Carek’s poems in Ion Calovia’s 1964 translation, my mother’s favorites. Here is Petru Vintila’s A Small Corrective Guide to Civilized Behavior (1967) and a chess guide from the 1980s dispensing advice on how to beat the smug capitalists who believe that they are better at chess than Romanians (who, as everyone knows, are chess’ chosen people). The title – Partide Alese – is a pun: partidă means match, but partid means party so that one is left to wonder whether the author meant to describe choice matches or choice parties, such as the one to which he and his compatriots belonged. Here, too, is Sienkiewicz’s Flood, the second volume of his trilogy on the rise and fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in a somewhat rare, uncensored, 1941 edition in A. L. Iacobescu’s translation. And here, a little to the right, is I. Manea’s propaganda classic, Dossiers of Violence: The Realities of the Capitalist World, propped against my mother’s fifth grade home economics manual. In the late seventies, communist girls like my mother learned how to use a new invention called the “vacuum cleaner,” how to make dress patterns and repair cufflinks, how to bake cakes, and how to be upstanding members of the Party. The amusement to be derived from such “cheap print” is endless. Among these classics, I also come across Editura Panghira’s prayer book, printed with the blessing of the Romanian Orthodox Church after the revolution and featuring Prayers for Deliverance from Spells, Charms, Curses, and Enemies. Intergenerational curses are the hardest to break, as Cecilia well knows. Among all this wealth, one finds Hardy, Trollope, and Woolf, Eco, Jules Verne, Guy de Maupassant, Alexandre Dumas, Zola, every Romanian author ever published, and so many others, hundreds of others. Here one finds the world.
“Riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s”
My grandmother’s eyesight is going, and she struggles to peer out the window. My grandfather is long dead, the old communists have won the most recent democratic election, the radio is playing Justin Bieber, and the central heating makes a soft, whirring noise. It is the third day of Christmas. Though she would never admit it, she is waiting for her father, even as other pasts keep intruding. She sits, chin in hand, a book open in her lap. She is at the kitchen table once more, it is December 1961, and her hand is on her stomach. She is dizzy and suddenly feels ill. She has nearly lost her daughter, the only child she will be capable of bearing. She grips the covers of the book tighter.
My mother was the first in our family to act in a sensible manner. Determined not to be another sop in the long line of lonely, disconsolate bibliomaniacs, she grew up playing volleyball, running track, participating in swimming championships, and doing everything that a good communist child should do, which included avoiding dangerous foreign literature or overtaxing one’s mind. To escape the clutches of the parental home-turned-book-tower, she cut off the blond hair that she had inherited from her great-grandfather and ran away to Bucharest where she promptly met my father, fell in love with him, and since I was already on the way, agreed to be his wife. Unfortunately, a generations-long affair with books is not so easily put off. Unbeknownst to her, her husband’s father was both an amateur poet and a serious collector who loved amassing texts more than he did spending time with his own wife and children. Though it would be unfair to say that my parents did not do their best – they sold off a part of his unmanageable collection while he was too distracted to notice and bought a boombox on the black market – , their bootleg cassettes of the Beatles, the Clash, and the Rolling Stones seem to have had no influence on my development in the womb. I came out blond and blue-eyed like Dumitru, a daughter to boot, and infinitely worse, a fickle child who preferred her grandparents’ ministrations to their own. I howled and howled day after day and night after night until they took me back to the maternal book-tower. I ceased crying there, at peace in my genetically familiar element.
“Wash far away”
I was five when the passion for books first manifested itself, and despite my grandmother’s best attempts to cultivate what she called “my finer attributes,” nothing seemed to stick as well as the written word. I insisted on being read to, and when my grandparents refused, exhausted by long workdays, superstitious nannies, and the struggle against relapses into alcoholism, I doggedly pursued neighbors and family acquaintances. I preyed on visitors who would appear, unsuspecting, in our hallway only to be met with my tyrannical demands to play the part of a book on tape. If they happened to refuse, I would throw a tantrum so bellicose, so unrelenting, so “obscene” – as my great aunt once put it – that the visitor in question would hastily make the sign of the cross, put his or her shoes back on, and run off before anyone could intervene. As visitors to our home became rarer and rarer and my demands more and more intemperate, my grandmother decided that the alphabet could wait no longer. It is under these circumstances of enforced politeness that I learned to read, in order that I might entertain myself and cease sabotaging others’ entertainment. I was a quick study, so no one was surprised when, at the age of eight, I walked myself to the public library for the first time. Within a few months, my grandmother had fired the nanny. In addition to being expensive, her services had also become superfluous: like clockwork, every day after school I could be found in the same place, contentedly browsing in the back room of the children’s section, growing by turns euphoric and manic from the surreptitious finds and the smell of paint thinner stored in the cleaner’s cabinet. I would stay until tea time and read everything I came across, though I preferred Russians like Nikolai Nosov, Korney Chukovsky, and Yury Olesha.
However, as all of the members of my family know, there comes a time in each of our lives when we must put down the volume and open a door. My great-great-grandfather went off to Alba Iulia, my great-grandfather to the war, my great-grandmother to the city, my grandmother to the capital, my grandfather to unsanitary metropolises, and my mother across the Atlantic. She divorced my father shortly after I was born, escaped the dictatorship, and applied for asylum in the United States. She packed her bags when I was two, never to return. Though it may seem hard to believe, I did not feel her absence. I loved the maternal tower, my grandparents, and my human books on tape. Unfortunately, however, my mother felt mine and did not share my passion for drab, socialist housing and libraries perfumed by paint thinner. At her insistence, when I was eleven, I packed my trunk and joined her in the New World.
Even thousands of miles away, however, the family books continued to haunt me. Although by the time I enrolled in high school I had been living in Florida for many years, I still felt afraid. The immense bookcases in my room made necessary by my numerous acquisitions at garage sales and used book shops made the precaution of having a direct exit necessary in my view, though at the time I told myself that living in a converted garage and having a private entrance was the prerogative of every American teenager. Unfortunately, despite the unlikelihood of experiencing an earthquake in the swampy Sunshine State and despite the clearly demarcated exit, the fear didn’t dissipate.
In college, too, at Columbia University, where I had enrolled to study comparative literature, I would wake up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, waiting for the books to tumble down from their shelves while my roommate snored on behind the curtain she had strung together from bath towels. I had prudently stacked all of my textbooks under the bed and on the top shelf of my desk – not too high, never too high – but this had not made me feel any safer. And yet, on such nights, I always dreamed about books: gardens of books, pastures of raw poems, orchards of half-ripened novels, vegetable patches seeded with verbs.
The fear even followed me to graduate school, where what pleased me most about the monk-like cell with its cold fireplace and stained, plastic-sheeted mattress was the fact that I lived on the first floor, along a corridor with direct access to the building’s courtyard. I made neat little piles of the books on the windowsill, and having calculated the potential angle of impact of the single bookcase, I took the precaution of leaving it barren. I’ve even felt the bookshelves shake in strangers’ living rooms, at parties, after too much dancing or too much drink and have had to step out into the night and stand silently sniffing at the dark, probing the cold with an ear inclined to the ground, waiting for the unthinkable. This fear is the reason why I have never visited the beautiful state of California or taken a vacation in Italy, now at an age when I can finally afford it. It is also why, perversely, I have acquired a great deal of books over the course of my life only to gift or lose them along the way.
I sometimes think that it is the weight of the past that lives on in the books we own, the weight of all of those who have come before us, who have lived, and suffered, and died, leaving behind these traces, like the soft trails of earthworms lingering in the loam from which they arose and burrowed back into obscurity. And yet, when I sit down with a book and I manage to enter it, if only briefly, through its frontispiece, and I feel the weight of the words, and their textures and smells, and the curious potions of syllables, and the decanters of prose and the thimblefuls of print, and find myself guided by unknown hands to mix matters of another’s choosing and drink strange and wonderful brews, I feel understanding in those traces. And safety. And love. And I remember how, in another life, when I worked as a university assistant librarian, I would sometimes be sent upstairs to the sequestered, windowless world of the bindery with a heavy crate of mangled, musty corpses in need of new spines or stitches or ligaments. If no one was around, I would steal a few minutes to linger at the repair bench and take care of a favorite, to oversee Yeats getting a new coat or Aristotle beached like a whale in his glue. And for that brief time, I would feel happy delicately mending and setting the quivering pages, cleaning and embroidering in faint spidery script my initials, only known to other keepers and traders and shearers of that secret flock of branded wits. It was not in me that the world existed then, though neither was it truly real and so dependent on others. In part, its distant reality consisted of my life ceding its vigor to the croci of language, so that, in those moments, I too became a Shepherd, a pale Genius of the shore. My message was to love those fragile repositories of self as you love one another.
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” wrote the man whose books I have used as doorstops more times than I care to admit. Our unhappiness has always come in the form of books, in which we also have discovered our happiness, which once discovered was certain to be lost. We have found our lives and lost them again and again in the words we have read and in the great shaking of the self, which comes from being moved, like Galileo’s earth, around a new sun. It is the great beauty of that sun, of the white rose – as Dante called the unbearable light reflected from the Primum Mobile where the believers are seated – that radiates from texts we have acquired and that has led to the trembling that I feel as a result. For, after all, the fear of being crushed by one’s bookshelves is no more than the certainty that the great, unspeakable beauty at the heart of the noun and the verb, the beauty of calling things by their proper name, is at odds with the nature of books as traces of their long-lost readers, as mortuary plaques commemorating the burdens, trauma, and nightmares from which their previous owners tried desperately to awaken but could not. It is the belief in their transcendent power rubbing up against the idea that they are Cain’s mark of danger, disappointment, and destruction, giving off faint whiffs of mortality.
The two tectonic plates come into contact. Books are, in one account, the oracles of the past that, understood with enough faith in the redemptive power of the word, would make time itself “run back and fetch the age of gold,” to use Milton’s phrase. If only one could read deeply enough, passionately enough, long enough, one would know what was to come. One could anticipate possible futures in the narratives of the past, in the hastily scribbled or agonizingly overwrought line, identifying with the thoughts and emotions of those who wrote, those who strutted their brief hour on the page, and those who watched them strut. In other words, if only one read well enough, one could find some essence that would speak to what is human in us and bend the arc of time back into circle, into a unity in which past writers and readers would find themselves propelled into futurity. This is the idea behind the sortes virgilianae. This is also the idea behind our reading of Scripture: we shall know what is to come, which is not so very different from what was at the beginning, by reading the world through the holy book. Indeed, the writers of the New Testament tell us that one day all readers will read again and all writers will take up their quills and walk. But perhaps the experience of reading a book only helps us count the hours, only convinces us that we are temporal beings, that the time in which we find ourselves is brief, that our understanding of language is grounded in cultural and linguistic forms, and that our way of thinking and being in the world – and therefore our understanding of texts – is unique to our own age. Perhaps no one will read our books as we do now, and our texts will speak to no one as they speak to us in this moment. Perhaps we, ourselves, will never read the books that we have loved again: the Aeneid perceived in the flush of love, Ulysses swallowed with the ache of exams, Oblomov known in indolence, on the beach, in that last summer before we left our hometowns forever. This second way of reading is – rightfully so – central to the enterprise of literary studies and of the study of the past as past, though it produces a kind of despair. In this consists the weight of the bookshelves.
When the tea sloshed in its cup on the third day Christmas and the books fluttered preemptively, it was December 1918. It was also December 1943, 1955, 1961, and 2016. Each of those readers and their books would come to be known and would be spoken to again. Each of those readers and their books once had been known and would be spoken to no more. The spasm of pain was of a magnitude of 5.6. I opened a window and breathed in the frigid night air.