T+N (Then+Now) posts will be past posts from other social media, paragraphs lifted from e-mails, or transcribed print journal entries + metadata with as much context as I can conjure up for the original post + new thoughts + ideally, comment aggregation.
I’m in the process of packing up my apartment, or perhaps more accurately, I’m rediscovering my blog as a way to procrastinate, instead of packing up my apartment. I’ve only been able to bring myself to pack up one of my bookshelves — the one in the living room* — and haven’t touched the three in my room. I’m pretty sure that once I do that, my room will no longer feel like a living space.
This (23 months) is the longest I’ve lived in any place since leaving home for college, and I think it’s become pretty apparent that my nesting instinct involves surrounding myself in the comforts of poetry and prose. I prefer buying books used, but if I read a book and have any kind of emotional reaction to it, it becomes really important for me to hold on to that specific copy, which probably explains why there are now more than four bookcases worth of books for me to pack up and transport to my new home.**
I originally posted this note, “Books and circles” on Facebook, on July 7, 2010, after visiting my mom’s cousin. I was in Taiwan for just under three weeks, in between my two AmeriCorps terms:
When I was eight, I read the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time. I have this vivid memory of being sprawled on a living room floor in Taiwan in what I thought was a family friend’s house, completely caught up in the story, then trying to finish the entire series before I left the country. I remember getting to the part about Aslan and the stone table in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and figuring out it was an allegory, and that was the moment where I realized authors are badass because they can, like, do things with books and words and metaphors, and readers are all, “Hey, I was just reading this story about animals, but it’s actually not even about animals.“
Today, I went with my mom to see her cousin, whom she thought I hadn’t met and whom I didn’t recognize. The first thing she said was that she remembers the first time we met, when I was lying on the floor reading while all the other kids were playing. (Me: “Yeah, that sounds like me.”)
I asked if I had been reading the Chronicles of Narnia, but she didn’t recognize the titles or author until my mom repronounced “C.S. Lewis” in a Chinese accent, and then my mom’s cousin walked into a bedroom and came back and presented me with the boxed set that I’d read 16 years ago. Later in the conversation, my mom mentioned that people call her cousin Zhang 老師 (teacher), and that name fit into the memory and explains why I thought I was with non-family.
Now everything makes sense, and the universe feels oddly tidy.
Also, my aunt (Chinese people don’t bother with numbering and removing cousins, thank you very much) is an amazing woman who’s dedicated her life to helping other people, and it was lovely to meet her for the first time again.
P.S. Anne Fadiman’s essay “Marrying Libraries” in Ex Libris: Confessions of A Common Reader, about how she and her husband joined their collections, is a great piece about many book-related things, including how individual books become imbued with the memories of the times you read them.
[Actually, I think I’m attributing something Mark Z. Danielewski said at the Festival of Books to Fadiman, but when he said what he said, it reminded me of her essay, and I don’t have that book or a transcript with me to check exactly what words either used. (Embarrassing admission: I checked Amazon to read part of the essay and googled my #latfob livetweeting, but the essay cuts off on the preview, and I didn’t tweet what MZD said.)]
This note was supposed to be shorter than it’s becoming. I could easily tack on something about meeting my mom’s other cousin’s husband in England, who owns a used bookshop, and knowing he was family even though he was technically an elderly English gentleman I’d never seen before and hadn’t heard of until a few weeks earlier. Or about talking to him about C.S. Lewis, too. Or about how I came down to breakfast a few days later and a first-edition Great Expectations was just sitting there, next to a plate of scrambled eggs. Or about Ex Libris or about reading as a kid and having to be “woken up” from books, which Fadiman talks about in the preface. But I have a boxed set to go browse.
Summary: Books are important.
-30- Facebook note
Update: I just reread this note and was amused that I mentioned using the Internet to figure out whether I was referring to the right texts. I think that impulse is heavily influenced from years of copy editing and fact-checking, which in turn was both influenced by and magnified by an unhealthy need to be right. I’m working on it, I swear.
My mom’s cousin passed away a few months later. She was battling cancer when we went to visit and was a little low energy, but she was still making sure that they people she helped were taken care of. Along with all of the people she helped through her church, she had a huge influence on my closest two cousins when they lived in Taiwan for a year as kids. After we talked about The Chronicles of Narnia, she asked about what I do, and it was the first time I had a conversation about my job with a member of my family and felt like they got it. My mom was there, of course, and I think she finally got a clearer picture of why I had decided to enlist in a second City Year. My parents have always been supportive and always tell me they just want me to be happy, but from my aunt, it felt like she was actually giving me her blessing to continue working with students.***
I now have my own copy of Ex Libris, a serendipitous stick-everything-in-a-box book sale acquisition. I was thinking about the essay “Marrying Libraries” the other day when one of my new roommates talked about filling our new living room with bookshelves so that we can read each other’s favorites and merge our book collections. I had a really awkward moment of intense discomfort, followed by a “we’re not there yet” conversation. This is one of my best friends, one of the first people I came out to, one of the only people I’ve ever let touch me with bare feet (this is really just illuminating more of my neuroses than helping me to make my point). As I said above, I prefer buying used books, and I’m a huge advocate for borrowing and lending books — but I’m not ready to intercalate anyone’s books with mine yet. And, in a hugely nerdy way, I realized that “Marrying Libraries” has become my benchmark for choosing someone I want to spend my life with. When I’m ready to call my books ours, that’s when I’ll know.
* Living room bookcase consisted of theory books, memoirs, anthologies and assorted books I bought and haven’t gotten to sorting yet. It was also supplemented by two file boxes with more books, courtesy of a few dangerous stick-everything-in-a-box-and-pay book sales at The Last Bookstore’s warehouse and the UCLA English department’s reading room. These were also, one might say, books that haven’t entered into the circle of trust and are therefore allowed to be out in the open.
** There’s a huge backyard and space for people to come over and sit and there are citrus trees in the backyard and there’s lavender in the front yard and a kitchen nook with adorable carved benches! Dinner parties! Sangria in mason jars in the backyard! Urban gardening! Herb-infused everything! I am very excited! Can you tell!?
*** My mom called and retroactively gave me her blessing a few months ago and told me she was proud of the work I’ve done. I think the turning point was watching the Heroes graduation video I cut together; you can’t see the Heroes and not understand how important youth development work is. They are one of the most inspiring groups of people I have ever had the privilege to spend time with.