Soon after Amazon announced it was selling 143 ebooks for every 100 hardcovers, a writer friend with a new iPad told me she had gotten rid of five shelves of books. "They were so dusty! I hadn't even read most of them. Why was I keeping them for so long?"
It made me take a good look at my own unread books, one of which was a wormhole back to college. My girlfriend back then was in love with the Romantic poets, so one birthday I gave her a mammoth new biography of Shelley. Neither one of us bought hardcovers as a rule because they seemed so expensive, so it was a much-appreciated gift on several levels.
She hadn't known the book was out yet, and was thrilled I got it for her. She quoted from the book all the time, but the only thing I remember her telling me is the wonderful come-on line Shelley used on a woman in a rowboat in Switzerland: "Shall we discover the mystery?"
Now that was hot. Poetic, but hot.
It's a line and a scene that's stuck with me for decades. Only I got it all wrong. Shelley wasn't on a lake or in Switzerland. And he definitely wasn't trying to bed his companion. He was musing about death. How do I know? Because when I looked for deadwood among my books, one of the first things I found in my bookcase of memoirs was Edward John Trelawney's entertaining Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author.
When I opened the faded paperback, I was shocked by the date of purchase I had recorded: 4/23/83. Read it or pitch it, I thought. Now. Well, once I started, I couldn't stop. It's filled with gossipy details about both poets, their ménages, their friends, and riveting accounts of how they died.
As the burly adventurer Trelawney tells it, Shelley and his friend Jane Williams were boating in the Gulf of Spezia near Pisa and the poet was in a dark reverie. He had "death in his eyes." But then suddenly, Shelley "raised his head, his brow cleared and his face brightened as with a bright thought, and he exclaimed joyfully, 'Now let us together solve the great mystery.'" He was ready to die.
Jane Williams was married with children and rather than piss Shelley off and risk a scene that might swamp the tiny boat, she punted: "No thank you, not now; I should like my dinner first, and so would the children." Talk about grace under pressure!
I found this story even better than the one I remembered, or mis-remembered. Did my girlfriend actually say the line the way I thought she had? Is it possible she was misquoting her book? Or did she get it right, and over time the scene and the quotation morphed into something more intimate, something that reminded me of her wicked smile? And why did I neglect the book for so long?
More to the point, given how crammed my study is with several thousand books, and that I'm reading more and more downloaded books on my iPad, will I even bother with the other books I haven't read, or will I get rid of many of them along with their dust?