The thought occurred to me the other day that books contain the stories that are printed on their pages, but there are other, secret stories on those pages too. I was reading The World According to Garp at Q’doba, and I turned the page, and there was a perfectly preserved little bug in the pages. It wasn’t even that squished. It was quite dead, however. It made me think of how it got there. Maybe the reader who checked it out before me was reading outside? Or near the compost bowl?
The other day, I was reading the same book at lunch, and the pages kept flopping over, so I pinned them down under the microwavable tray of kofta curry that I was eating. I had my fork nowhere near the book, but a big splat of sauce ended up on the edge of one of the pages. So, now, page 148 has a kofta curry stain in the margin.
Some reader after me will doubtlessly see it and wonder how it got there. Probably, they’ll think I’m an asshole who is careless with my library books; in fact, I feel quite bad about the kofta curry stain on page 148 and am not particularly careless with any of my books. In reality, the kofta curry stain speaks of someone who eats lunch alone each day and so reads while eating for company. That could infer a lot of things about me: that maybe I don’t have any friends (not true) or that I don’t like people (a little bit true, sometimes) or just that I don’t feel much of a connection with the people around me at work (which is closest to the truth) and so get more enjoyment from the company of books. What is said about a woman who eats kofta curry for lunch? That I am Indian? (I’m not.) That I’m vegetarian? (I am.) That I’m one of those rare Americans who would sooner eat something “foreign” and without cheese and gravy? That’s true as well. From those facts, all sorts of inferences can be made about me. I probably voted for Obama. (I did.) I’m probably a regular at the farmer’s market and slightly obsessed with recycling. (Both, true.) I probably drive a hybrid car (I don’t, unfortunately) or ride around a lot on buses (I wish I did, but again, I don’t).
All of these inferences could come from a splotch of kofta curry in the margin of a library book. And so my copy of The World According to Garp now contains a new story. So, I wonder what the dead bug means?
One of my favorite “secret stories” is when I acquire a book at the library and find, in the cover or on the first blank page, a person’s name scribed in neat, italic handwriting. I imagine, then, that the book probably belonged to a person old enough to be of the generation that actually learned to write with neat, italic handwriting. My grandmother had beautiful handwriting. The person is now deceased and her/his (usually her) family just didn’t know what to do with all those books. So they donated them to the public library. It seems a nice way for one’s name to go on: in providing stories and knowledge for others in the future.
Or a passage will be underlined (hopefully in pencil, lightly, though sometimes in ink and deep enough to leave an impression on the next page), and I imagine the high-school student hunching over the book when there is a flutter in the heart that comes from one of those magical passages that beg to be underlined (hopefully in pencil, lightly), even if they prove nothing toward one’s thesis.
My first Silmarillion looks like it might have been leashed on a piece of twine and bounced behind a schoolbus Napoleon Dynamite-style. It has marginalia and underlined passages (in pencil, lightly) that have become smudged from years of turning the pages on which they reside. None are particularly insightful to me anymore; in fact, some are downright banal, but I leave them because these represent my first thoughts kindling on this book and this world that would come to change my life in so many ways, some bad but most good. If someone tried to donate this Silmarillion to a public library, I doubt they’d take it; but oh, what stories it tells!