About four years ago, I gave half of my books to the public library on St. Charles in New Orleans. My donation totaled about 100 books — some brand spanking new with bindings still uncracked. My husband graciously lugged the booty the few blocks to the drop-off box several days in a row. We had moved a few times already and saw a few more moves in the future, so without bookshelves, my collection added too many pounds to our life.
One sticky afternoon, I sat outside on our porch on Chestnut and Bordeaux and combed through my titles to cull the ones I absolutely, positively had to keep. This was a nightmare process. I wanted to keep everything. Some I had yet to read, others were marked with notes, and many were filled with memories of the work I’d put into earning my doctorate. All those exams, all that reading, all those hours and hours and hours of quiet study and contemplation, and enjoyment, lest I forget enjoyment, have made me the writer I am today.
I’ve come to realize that books are like furniture. They accumulate over time to give you an identity. They don’t usually go out of fashion like clothes, and you certainly never grow out of them because they change in accordance with you, as you bring fresh eyes to the work. They are often filled with warmth and goodness, and can feel like reassuring friends at times, so the dearth is palpable.
I don’t know if I can explain just how gloomy the process was for me, except to say I revisit that sadness whenever I want to look up a passage in a book I’m most certain I own, only to discover it went in the donation box. It happens more often than not, and I’ve started to wonder who I was when I gave some of them away. I was surely possessed by some curatorial Fury who didn’t know me all that well. She’s stripped me of some valuable texts.
Just today I was looking for my copy of memoirs of a geisha, which I acquired almost two decades ago, long before I decided to become a writer. I was so miffed when I couldn’t find it and I quickly assumed I’d dumped it in the to-go pile. Luckily, I’d only just forgotten it was a hardcover and didn’t recognize the binding on the shelf when I first looked. I was relieved to find it on my third pass. I should’ve known I hadn’t given it away. I’d never part with that one. It was a gift from Arthur Golden himself.
I met the writer briefly in 2005 in Soho, when I was a cocktail waitress at a private launch party for the film adaptation. It was a small event and he was there to sign books for the guests. I’d my own paperback at home and at some point, early in the evening, I greeted him and told him how much I loved his story, and though I’d never been to Japan, his novel brought it to life for me on the page. I also told him I regretted not bringing my copy for him to sign. Our chat was brief, and he was humble, and I thought that was that until his assistant handed me a signed copy at the end of the evening. I didn’t recall telling him my name, but he’d obviously remembered. His note was simple, but also touching.
From my father, I learned books are thoughtful gifts. He always prints his name in his — Peter T. Ambroziak — and when he gives one he often leaves a note for the receiver with the date. I try to follow his lead and add notes to mine, too, whenever I give them as gifts.
I realize not everyone keeps the books they receive — for some of us, they add too much weight — but because they are a fluid object that flows from hand to hand, sometimes you can be fortunate enough to find a used book that’s been a part of an intimate exchange, one that seems to enrich the text itself. Like my used copy of Marguerite Yourcenar’s Fires. I probably ordered it from Abe Books as is, warned ahead of possible marginalia. I remember I was pleasantly surprised to discover the little note inside. I can only imagine Lisa and how special she was to the giver. I can’t parse the signature but it seems the giver was rather touched by the text and wanted to pass along the sentiment. I have to say, message received.