by Rebecca Martin
The Existential Reader was lying on the floor again. “Are you going to pick that up?” asked my husband. “I would, but what’s the point?” I said from my seat at the kitchen table. He barely smiled. A paltry response for a decent existentialist joke, I thought, and it’s true, there really is no point. Despite our best efforts, the books in our house are always moving, seemingly on their own.
One year ago, we moved into our old wreck of a dream house, a once-beautiful place that sat on the market for three years because no one else could bear the thought of replacing a long driveway and a leaking roof or cutting back decades of overgrowth. But we were in its thrall from the start, in part, because in the center of it is a library. It is the kind of room that existed only on the board game Clue in my childhood, with four walls of shelves and a fireplace with a hammered copper hearth. The only improvement necessary there was the shelving of all of the books we had brought to our marriage and acquired since that had never been unpacked at the same time before, many of them awaiting us in boxes in our garage or my in-law’s attic. Finally, my copy of Mara, Daughter of the Nile, discovered on eBay long after my favorite book from Seventh Grade had gone out of print, sat next to John’s copy of Lincoln’s Speeches. Our refugee books had the home they deserved, and yet some still roam.
Rifling through a stack of school notices on the kitchen counter, I’ll find Catcher in the Rye, its paperback binding stiff from having been wedged on a shelf or in a box since it was last read. It is most often books that have been long-neglected, put away decades ago when term papers were completed, that confront us in this way, desperate to be read again. Surprise titles will show up on our nightstands as though directing my husband or me toward a truth in Lawrence of Arabia. We put them back on the shelves and within hours or days they have again drifted, back out in the open as though asking us why they aren’t being read, or, in the case of the French-English dictionary, why we are no longer trying to speak French.
If I pass by the library in the right moment, I can hear singing, “books, books BOOKS, booky book BOOKS.” If I sneak a glimpse, I see our kindergarten daughter, Maeve, standing on a chair, pulling out a volume of the Waverly Novels from 1880 that my mother-in-law bought as a set at an estate sale, poring over the brown musty picture-less pages of The Bride of Lammermoor with faux comprehension before restoring it to the shelf alongside the rest of the forest green bindings or placing it on the window sill or she could be grabbing one and tucking it under her arm as if rushing off to class.
Despite the documented sightings of our book spirit, my husband still takes the appearances of the books to heart. “I should read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius again,” he’ll say when he finds it lying in the middle of the hallway; but then he’ll put it down and forget about it, reflexively reaching for his tablet with more current books, like those written in the last millennium, when he goes to bed. When the tide turns Marcus Aurelius up again, he might turn to me and say, “you know, you might really like this.” “Huh, you think?” I’ll say, while replacing it on a shelf. I congratulate myself on not being prone to the suggestion of a book’s appearance until I find three copies of the cover of Northanger Abbey in the tray of our copier and am tempted to take it from the glass and sit down and read it there and then.
Were I to do that, I would likely land on a pile of dust jackets. Our books shed their jackets like summer wedding guests on a dance floor. The jackets sometimes go on to live lives of their own, collecting in piles or consorting with magazines. I wonder what compels our book spirit to dismantle them like is. All I can think is that she must be determined to get inside them, to know their secrets, which she is, as yet, unable to decipher.
Her reading now is limited to Green Eggs and Ham, which migrates some, as our other books do, but these days no further than the bedroom where it is read each night with Maeve playing Sam from memory and me the furry guy Sam pursues with his tray of food. These are some of those rare moments of parenthood that are just as enjoyable and gratifying as I imagined they would be. I tell myself, nevermind that at the foot of the bed, nestled in the carpet is a tower of From Julia Child’s Kitchen, two volumes of the Dialogues of Plato, and a 1917 copy of Lord Charnwood’s Abraham Lincoln. The stacks and the orphaned jackets and the constant book migration represent the things I never anticipated and cannot understand about my life, much like Maeve herself.
I have three children and each of them surprises me with who they are becoming, but Maeve is in some ways unknowable thus far. Her quiet other-worldliness can at times trouble us, but it leaves Maeve content, even joyful in her own experience of the world, and in books especially. Perhaps we seize upon the books as our clues to what she is thinking. Or they could mean nothing, are merely something that we have in abundance. Regardless, the moving books are our comfort. While Maeve’s purpose remains a mystery, that we all love the books is enough. Regardless of what Marcus Aurelius wrote, his mere presence peeking out from under the closet door is a sign that Maeve is one of us. So, I re-shelve and re-jacket, but I never turn to Maeve and tell her that she has to leave the books alone.
About the author
Rebecca Martin is a former lawyer and political fundraiser who is now doing the two things she has always wanted to do: writing and raising a family. Her work has previously appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, Brain, Child, and Literary Mama, among other publications.