I am a girl who reads.
I love books; newspapers; magazines. When I was sick, I had to give up my beloved fashion magazines. I never liked the trashy ones — the ones that were too gossipy — I loved the fashiony ones best. It’s a habit I’ve never been able to resume. Every time I pick up one of the glossy beasts, the old rumbling starts to stir and I have to put the slick things down again.
Books. After I finished at UCLA, I moved across the country with my then-boyfriend — we went from West Los Angeles to the Washington, DC-Metro Area. When we had been dating as students, he’d have the New York Times delivered to that terrible apartment he shared with his fraternity brothers on Landfair. On Saturdays, we’d make breakfast, or get breakfast out, then read the Times, like my parents did with the Los Angeles papers. I thought I’d marry him because, among other things, he was the first man I’d met who liked to read.
And when we moved in together in Suburban DC, we’d have the Washington Post delivered to our apartment each day — it would stack up until we’d section it off on the weekends when the news was no longer new. Like one of those 20lb boxes of navel oranges that no one ever gets to the bottom of before the fruit has gone overripe.
My friend David used to write short stories about couples who moved in together and commingled their record collections — it had struck me, reading his writing, that commitment meant entangling passions. Sex and music; for me, sex and books. Where does your Coltrane end and my Joni Mitchell begin? But now, for the life of me, I can’t remember what sort of taste in music George had had.
I’d left all of my CDs at my parents’ house. But George and I had mixed up all of our books — of which there had been many. When we’d split, we’d come away with mostly only the things we’d brought to the mess. He’d brought a sofa, and a bed, and a lot of politics; economics. I’d brought the solid oak mid-century tables that are in my house to this day, and classics from across the spectrum. We were both mad for political and economic theory — it’s a joke now, but nonetheless a true story, that he’d given me a copy of Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose on one of our early dates.
You could, however, tell his books from mine because I highlight, and he underlined. And yet, in our entertwined life, I made off with some of his books anyway. For instance, what post-collegiate woman needs three copies of Plato’s The Republic? (All different translations, mind you.) And I have a few of his books, still. His handwriting intact; his margin notes and diagramming still there; his comparisons across the philosophers still brilliant. I have very few things leftover from that relationship, except for Adam Smith; Plato.
When Andrew and I split, there were no books to divide. They were almost all mine. He had cookbooks, and some beautiful, leatherbound things. But he wasn’t a reader. I’d come with the practical ones, and I took them all when I left, shedding some of the weight along the way.
Last night, I was putting something on a high shelf, and stumbled upon two books that looked out of place. One, I realised, was Cheating Bill’s. I’d never seen him open a book during the entire time we were together, so for all I knew, it belonged to someone other than him — probably some other girl. But it had wound up upon my shelf, and it had long been on my to-read list. Imagine that — it had been in my library the whole time!
The other was my own copy of L’Education Sentimental. I’d lent it to Frederic at some point — maybe six years ago? — and I don’t think he’d ever read it. But his then-assistant had returned it to me on his behalf, containing one of the work notes she’d sometimes send — typically unrelated to the thing at hand. This note had to do with a stack of emails, printed, that she’d enclosed in a separate folder. I recalled them only because they were called out by name in her loopy script.
As I touched the spines of the volumes of Plato, and John Locke, and as I flipped open the pages and again saw George’s inky scrawl, and the wiggly underlines, I recalled the time when I had had enough faith to mix a library. I remembered a love story I didn’t very often — or very thoroughly — consider.
What I am trying to say is that sometimes, it takes a long time to see things clearly; to understand that those are love-letters in the pages — not merely schoolboy scribbles. And that while Frederic’s assistant’s message tells me This is all, in that chicken scratch in George’s notes in The Wealth of Nations is perhaps a hopeful note that says: Try again.
(Statue of Adam Smith, Edinburgh. Somewhat unconsciously snapped by me in February on the Royal Mile.)