Last week my friend, James, returned a book that he had borrowed from me... in 1991. In his defense, we hadn't seen each other in nineteen years. But through the wonders of Facebook, we were recently reunited online, and he sheepishly admitted that he had something of mine to return.
To be honest, I don't remember loaning him the book. Our summer romance is a happy but faded memory for me, a film reduced to a few plot points and not a lot of detail.
I tried to guess the title: was it The Good Thief? -- a favorite poetry book of mine, written by my college professor, Marie Howe. She was one of the biggest influences in my life, and I have mourned the loss of this book for many years, regretting my carelessness in loaning out an inscribed copy. But James said that wasn't it.
I thought it might be Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott's parenting memoir that's as much about faith and perseverance and friendship as it is about anything else. That book (slightly water-damaged from reading in the bathtub) had served as a touchstone for me at various low points in my life, but it somehow wasn't on my bookshelf the last time I needed it. Could it have been residing in a box in James's mother's basement all this time? No, James confirmed, that wasn't it either.
I thought of all the books I'd loved and lost: every one of Kurt Vonnegut's novels; I've read them all, loved them all, but I somehow don't own a single one. Same with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Aside from my parents' copy of The Great Gatsby, which I "borrowed" when I left for college, all of my Fitzgerald books are missing. Were they all library books? Certainly, two decades of weekly library visits limits one's personal library. Did they go home with my roommates when college ended? What about The Tao of Physics? I read it on the subway. Did I leave it on the "Read and Ride" display at the Boston T-station in Porterhouse Square? Or give it to a boy I was trying to impress? I left some books with my new friends when I returned from a summer spent in (then) Czechoslavakia because it was difficult for them to acquire contemporary fiction in English: Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides, Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Misery by Stephen King. I miss the art books and Buddhism books I divvied up with my former husband. And I know I've loaned many a favorite book to anyone and everyone, a booksellers' addiction: the deep-rooted compulsion to put books in other people's hands, wanting others to experience the same joys, pleasures, surprises, that I have been lucky enough to find in them.
James and I finally arranged to meet for dinner so that we could catch up and he could return The Book. He looked exactly the same. I know people say that, but, in his case, it was true. Startlingly tall. Handsome. An air of surfer dude, dressed up as East Coast preppie. Holding the book behind his back, he gave me one more hint: the book had something to do with an issue that was extremely important to me.
My mind was blank. I couldn't begin to guess what it could be. Is it a book on vegetarianism? on dogs? art? writing? I begged him to put me out of my misery. James pulled from behind his back a dog-eared mass market copy of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, a dystopian novel and social critique with a strong feminist subtext. The back cover of the small, blue paperback was torn. The corners of several pages were turned over, and the text was heavily underlined and highlighted. On the inside back cover were my trademark notes, a habit I gave up years ago: chicken scratch with page numbers, comments, and exclamation points: "page 395 Irony! page 387 Racism! 373 Language!!!"
My friend, Nancy, tells the story of a stranger approaching her in a store to remind her of a summer they once shared working in a shoe department in Boston years ago. Nancy vigorously denied this ever happened, telling the woman she had mistaken Nancy for someone else, until suddenly, it was like someone kicked open a door in her brain and a flood of memories came pouring in: it was true! She had worked in a shoe department one summer in Boston. Seeing my ragged copy of The Handmaid's Tale was like a door opening in my memory; on the other side stood my 22-year-old self. I was suddenly reunited with my blossoming feminist politics and a memory of the March for Women's Lives, 1989, Washington D.C.; my Peace & Justice Studies coursework and an analysis of When Harry Met Sally for my Feminist Film Theory class; an internship with anti-nuclear advocate, Dr. Helen Caldicott's progressive women's organization. And a me from twenty years ago with the same beliefs I have now, but a little more focused, a little more naive, and a lot less tired. Handing that book to James twenty years ago, I know I thought I'd change his life. Change the way he looked at things. And perhaps I thought he'd understand me a little better, reading through my notes, and underlinings.
I'm reminded of Elizabeth Bishop's poem, "One Art." "The art of losing isn't hard to master," she writes. She goes on to suggest all the things that we can expect to lose: keys, names, a city here and there. Books are just one of the many things we lose along the way -- boyfriends, memories, books, parts of ourselves, maybe not lost, but certainly forgotten or misplaced.
And I will admit I have gained some books along the way, too: The Great Gatsby, as I mentioned. My grandmother's Fannie Farmer Cookbook, with family photos dispersed through its pages. My friend, Lesley's copy of A Path to Love, a book I borrowed from her years ago but that I so love re-reading, seeing her underlinings, knowing who she was at that time, and who she's grown into, that I have yet to return it. And a library book or two that never made it back to the returns bin.
All of this is to say simply this: almost every day I am asked for my opinion about the future of the book. Will printed books cease to exist? And I honestly don't know the answer. But I know that I miss the books I've lost along the way. Not the stories that would otherwise be found in an e-book, or online these days, but the physical books with their notes and underlinings and associations, pressed flowers or photos stuck between the pages, bookmarks from a special place, an inscription from a friend. Without books, these time capsules, we lose something we can never get back. In this case, the excuse to look up an old flame...