Sunday, March 18, 2007

those things that fall out of books

At my shop we deal often with boxes of random books: "These were left in my garage" "My aunt died, I don't know what to do with these" "I'm moving". There are also the trades for credit and the desperate traveller who says he or she needs gas money and would I buy a few books they happen to have with them.

But it is the boxes, the piles of ten or twelve crumbling cardboard cartons packed with books, that are our challenge and our delight. Very often these turn out to contain a nice set of encyclopedias--some off brand--missing only two volumes, with water damage to all. Or a few cartons of all the Readers Digest Condensed Books issued from 1963 to 1971, in great condition. Or stacks of old catalogs.

My partner says "the book stops here". I remind him we have to pass the book...or books..along, somehow, or else why are we in the business. For many of the truckload volumes we have our free table outside. It is there the Readers Digests go, and the somewhat damaged but still readable volumes, a lot of the romance novels, and..whenever I spy a child from the trailer parks meandering our way, a stack of interesting children's books. Over the years we've sent thousands of books out into the community; we figure someday someone will wonder why our tiny region is so book obsessed and literate, and will likely credit the school system, never knowing it was the secret book-pushers at the odd little bookshop.

Over the years it has intrigued me what falls out of the books; what little bits of ephemera have been used as bookmarks, or tucked into some volume for safekeeping.

There have been photographs, usually the out-takes, the unflattering ones where the subject was caught mid sneeze, or with her eyes crinkled shut, or with a tree sprouting from the top of her head. There have been bonafide bookmarks , usually the cheery cardboard kind with owls, puppies, and bad poetry, plus a bit of thread in chartreuse, bright orange, or dayglo pink.

Clippings: the war has ended. Someone died. Someone was born. The book was reviewed.

Letters, receipts, bills.

A few times a Valentine--from the 1930's or 1920's, pressed away. And pressed away also, flowers, now pale smudges and crumbling bits of tan or brown or murky green--a wildflower, a corsage. Once, a sprig of Edelweiss collected, according to the fading note on the envelope, in Switzerland in 1909. It had kept its lovely fuzzy white form, living in the envelope in a travel guide all these long years. I wondered what the trip was like, how the mountain air smelled, how the light struck the mountains where surely there was still, even in summer, a bit of snow remaining. What other flowers were there? Who had been with the person who gathered and treasured this?

What did the war bring to those lives?

The other day I was moving some of my own books around. My cats help me a lot, pushing over the piles I stack around my desk, pointedly nudging one unstable group after another and staring at me as they fall as if to say "normal people are much, much tidier. And please notice the gleaming white fur at my neck while you are at it." As I was gathering up some of my books of poetry, a few little papers fluttered out. I picked them up, and stopped, and stared a while out into the almost-spring air.

One was a letter I'd forgotten, from someone I had deeply loved. When his latest child was born I made a quilt for it; having made quilts for nearly all children dear to me--odd hodgepodges of fabric with embroidered animals and little snippets of rhyme and the name of the new baby. He was writing--evidently many months later--to thank me. It's been a long time since we were in the same area; it was a complicated time, but a sweet one in its way.

All the joy and sorrow of those times rushed back as I held his letter, with its news of mountain journeys and his work and the wellbeing of his growing family. I made the right choice, back in those deliriously tempting days. But in the spring, as the river runs deep and the willows start to show flashes of bright chartreuse, and the air is so sweet, I recall those days and hours so vividly. Passion is a complicated country...but the hearts of children should not be damaged. I thought that then, and I think it now, and send that now distant family my heart's good wishes, and turn back to my own. I know where I belong and where my heart's true home is--but, in another story, in another time--well, the ending could have been different. Probably not better--literature is full of cautionary tales: look at poor Anna K, and the heroines of Hardy, and Henry James, and all. Perhaps it was my background in literature that kept me to a ethical center?

Anyway, I tucked the letter into another book. And looked at the next bit of paper. My mother's handwriting, that elegant Spenserian hand, on a scrap: a recipe for Apple Crisp. Apples, honey, lemon juice, cinnamon. Topped with an oat mixture, but the recipe for that isn't with it. I remember it, however--it was an old childhood sweet, and I've often made it for my own kids.
Made me think of my latest email from my stepmother, bringing up again the affair my mother had with her husband (it is complicated indeed: two couples, one of them a church pastor and his wife. My mother, supposedly, involved with the young pastor. Two divorces. My father marries the now freed pastor's wife. Oh, soap opera had nothing on this). Now--it is, what, 40 years from that time--my stepmother writes still of her hurt and the shame of it all.
My mother always said the accusations were untrue; my very beautiful mother, buried now near a lilac tree in a far northern state. She died 6 months after my father. My stepmother says she recently found...falling out of a book--a letter from my mother to my father, sealed. Never opened. She says she'll send it my way someday, if she thinks of it.

The final thing from between my book pages turns out to be a torn card on which at some time or another I took the time to scrawl a quote from Lamartine: "I am a fellow citizen of all who think. Truth, that is my country."

It is an odd quote for me to have wanted to save--I tend to love the stories more than the truth per se. But possibly it was in a moment in which I needed the world to make a bit more sense.


Blogger marlyat2 said...

Ah, I like these.

The jumble and mess leading into memories and could-have-been and terrible was.

Those little streaks of grief...

The unopened letter.

Will you open it, I wonder?

11:41 AM, March 19, 2007  
Blogger LiVEwiRe said...

These were all things, then, that you needed to come across. Things that would have sat there longer without the intervention of a member of the feline pursuasion. So now your mind goes back to those times; awkward, happy, confusing, and makes you take notice again. Something in that quote may ring even truer today than it had in the past. I often wonder if I correctly envision your shop. Then I remember that it's not about a location but about love, sharing and opportunity.

9:57 PM, March 19, 2007  
Blogger David said...

When I was a kid, I was very good at finding four leaved clovers. Even today, if I spend a few minutes hovering over a clover patch, I can ususally find at least one. I used to place the clovers in several layers of waxed paper and then press them in large books for several months. They would dry nicely and usually retain a nice green color. I suspect that I still have a few books hiding forgotten clover. Someday, someone may open those books and get an interesting surprise. :)

12:26 AM, March 21, 2007  
Blogger Lori Witzel said...

Those things that fall out of books...what an evocative post title!

I decided to untether from the content of your post, wonderful as it is, and think:

My tears fall out of books.
Monsters fall out of books.
Schroedinger's cat had kittens, and they all fall out of books.

A friend recommended Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, and you and The Usual Suspects may enjoy them...many things fall out of his books.

6:59 PM, March 23, 2007  
Blogger Laura said...

How could you not open the letter? I'll bet you will. I haven't stopped by your blog before and I'm so glad I did. Your musings about growing old and sitting for that photographer are very affecting--I know exactly what you're talking about.
Books have been and are a constant companion in my life and home---they're all around, everywhere. I wish I had your bookstore as a waystation for those on their way out.
Many thanks for the pleasure your writing gives.

2:57 AM, March 26, 2007  
Blogger jarvenpa said...

And thanks to all of you for your comments. (and welcome, Laura, I have admired your beautiful work a long time). Lori, I really like Fforde's books tremendously (but alas, find a lot of my customers don't have the background to enjoy all the jokes. Who knew English majors were an endangered species?)
I'm sure--if my stepmother ever manages to send me my mother's letter--I will open it. Indeed, how could I not?

8:27 PM, March 26, 2007  
Blogger Jan said...

This is a wonderful posting.
So much food for thought..
All those pages, warming thoughts and passions, hopes and dreams, hiding disappointments, keeping hold of memories...
I shook my latest library book to see what it held. A dry cleaning tkt flopped out ...mundane!
BUT what WAS the article of clothing, what did it mean to its owner, why was she planning to wear it, who would she wear it with..
Stories go on.

4:26 AM, April 10, 2007  

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