Letters to the Left Behind

I started following Judy Blume on Twitter. It happened yesterday with all of the Planned Parenthood activity happening on social media. We all turned our pictures pink. We all spoke out about our experiences.

It was weird to see Judy Blume the person, Judy Blume in Santa Fe, Judy Blume in Central Park. Judy Blume to me is the smell of cracked book bindings and paper from the ‘80s, not that lady traveling to Edinburgh and touting her new book. When I think of Judy Blume I think of lying in my bed in Williamstown, in the room where I grew up, the hardcover copy of Letters to Judy propped open on my stomach. 

It struck me tonight that each of my books tell two stories: the one written on its pages and the one of who I was when I read it. I pulled Letters to Judy down from my shelf, happy to still have it. When I opened it the binding broke, the front cover falling limp in my left hand. There was an inscription that I don’t remember—not mine—from a daughter to her mother. The note is dated “Christmas 1986.”

There is that story in this book, too.

I remember where I was when I read every book on my shelf. Even the books I don’t remember. Solar. My front porch in Maryland. Terms of Endearment. The dark bedroom in my father’s small Florida apartment. Giving Good Weight. A thesis carrel in the Middlebury College library. Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. In the barn at Bread Loaf, where we read stories out loud to each other, one paragraph at a time. Moby Dick. Mrs. Ames’ twelfth grade classroom, and then again in that same college library, this time in a carrel on the other side. The Shadow of Sirius. In bed in Maryland. New Moon. My sister’s townhouse. The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton. The Davison Library. Paradise Lost. That long room in Munroe. Praying Drunk. A Laundromat in Springfield. Gone with the Wind. The faded chair in the corner of the Mt. Greylock library.

Maybe this is all on my mind because I’ve been thinking about getting rid of books. I even announced it to Jamie tonight.

“The next time we move,” I said, “I’m going to start getting rid of books.”

I meant the ones that don’t matter to me like the MFA Guide that I bought in 2006. But even that tells a story. One of failed attempts. One of paths not taken.

It’s a lot to carry around, these books. With every move the number of boxes grows. Since we moved to Northampton, I’ve filled an entire shelf. No room can keep up with this pace. In my mind I think that I want to keep all of these books for my children, so that when they are in school they can find whatever book they need on these shelves. I think that it’s a matter of frugality. But that’s not the truth. I think that I want to keep all of these books for them so that they can know me.

My mother didn’t read much when I was growing up, but I remember the few books on her shelves. Clan of the Cave Bear. Postcards from the Edge. A copy of Not Without My Daughter that was missing its dust jacket. I read all of them even though I was too young to understand most of them. I read all of them with my mother in mind. I wondered what she got from these books, why she kept them, what they had meant to her when she read them.

I hope that, one day, my children will want to know me that badly.

Or, if there are no children, that whoever is left behind—a best friend, a grieving widower—will take a minute before they box them up, will take them down from the shelves and stretch them end-to-end, will tile their backyard with these books that I have read. Maybe they’ll stop after that. Get tired of the task like I always did every time I had to move them. Or maybe they’ll leave them out there over night, for the rest of the week, for however long it takes for the sun to fade them, for the rain to rot their pages, for the neighbors to call and complain.