Books I read when I was other people

Bookshelves by Germán Poo-Caamaño (2013) CC BY 2.0, via Flickr

Yesterday was my birthday and the library was closed for the holiday. Today was the day after Labor Day and the library was open again for business.

I returned two of the books I checked out last week, (while keeping 8 additional ones partially or wholly unread in a stack at home.) I returned a library card (belonging to Benjamin someone) that tumbled onto my lap when I opened one of the library books at home. I hope you find your human, Benjamin’s library card.

This is not the same library to whom¹ I addressed a love letter.

This is a library in another state, in a small town. It is becoming my library. I was so pleased in April when my out-of-state driver’s license and a pay stub with a local mailing address was sufficient to acquire a local library card.

“You *are* somebody,” my friend joked. “You have a library card!”

I smiled, because it was true. My latest self. My newest library card. I have a stack of other cards, issued by other libraries to other selves sharing the same name and birthdate. Souvenirs from other people. Self, but not the same.

This library is charming older building, with potted plants, and rows of computer terminals and magazines “sponsored” by the local funeral home. It is a place, but it’s also not-a-place. Libraries have their quirks and personalities that make them individually identifiable, but also exist as part of the infrastructure of metaphysical transport are somehow contiguous with all libraries everywhere.

In this way, libraries are a little like airports. The experience of being in different airports blurs together. One airport looks much like another, with generic terminals and shops and restrooms. It is as if all airports everywhere existed on a continuous, infinite loop in some other dimension. Walk far enough in the Detroit Airport terminal and you might find yourself in Atlanta or Hong Kong or Tel Aviv airports.

Wander long enough in the library (any library, all libraries) and you emerge … somewhere else, as someone else. Recognizable, but not the same. I have been wandering in libraries for nearly 35 years (I count my mother’s stories of her trips with my infant self, though do not personally remember it.)

In those journeys, my various selves have read (and have been read) a lot of books. I wander through the stacks. I gaze over the shelved spines in a vaguely predatory, discriminating way other people might approach a shoe sale or blueberry thicket heavy with fruit. I may not have been here before, but the residents are familiar to me.

A glimpsed book cover (title, font) might jog a few details about plot or character (…and all of the alligators were named ‘Seth.’)² But the memory is more likely to be a sensory flashback, a physical memory of embodied emotion of specific time and place. Being curled on the sofa in a specific house, in the middle of the night or on a rainy afternoon or hiding in air conditioning in the midst of unrelenting summer heat. Being 11 or 15 or 23 or 32. Being another self, another person. Recognizable, and not entirely quite unlike me.³

¹ It’s only polite to address a library as a “Whom,” rather than “that.”
² Swamplandia, by Karen Russell, Knopf: 2011.
³ “After a fairly shaky start to the day, Arthur’s mind was beginning to reassemble itself from the shell-shocked fragments the previous day had left him with. He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.”  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

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