Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Book Between Friends

A friend who is dying asks me to her apartment to help her dispose of her remaining books. There aren't many, but then there never were. She's worked in a bookstore for years and most of the books she's read she's either borrowed from stock, or read in advance-readers-copies -- the publishers' galleys of forthcoming books, sent out to reviewers and the trade in advance of publication, usually in plain paper covers. (I only recently learned, when major publishers, facing new economic difficulties, stopped printing so many of these, that it is actually more expensive to produce an ARC, in most cases, than to simply send fully bound copies, but timing is obviously a factor as well. Despite their comparative rarity, and what used to be a select, but loyal group of collectors of these in the used books business, now better served and undone by the Internet, most ARC books have little or no value.) My friend is not a collector. Her apartment is small, comfortable, but sparsely furnished, in part as a matter of personal preference as she has little attachment to things and less money, but also as a practical necessity. A survivor of polio, she's quite a diminutive person, and until recently when her treatment for cancer made the use of them impracticable, she wore leg-braces and walked with crutches, nicknamed, "Bert & Ernie." At home, at least when she was alone, she would sometimes navigate her day without. For some time now, she's had to use a wheelchair, so her apartment has been simplified even further, to accommodate the wheelchair. She describes this process to me as "cancer shui." Of the books still in my friend's apartment, few have any sentimental or monetary value; these she has already either given away or otherwise dealt with. I am here to collect whatever is left.

It is an unlikely pile that fits easily in a box or two. Looking through them with her, even as she insists that "there's nothing really here," my friend does what people so often do with the books they intend to just be rid of, and explains or defends the presence of each before dismissing them.

"This was actually a pretty good book."

"This one was supposed to make me rich!!! See how well that worked out?"

And then she laughs, exactly as she used to before she got sick: barking loud until she coughs, then a smoky diminuendo that resolves itself in a sly grin behind the back of her rather elegant little hand.

Most of the books are of a practical kind: dealing with financial and or situational matters from health to interpersonal relationships. "Self Help," one way and another, might best describe these. She is dismissive of the lot, though individually, as we put them into the boxes, she will admit that this or that one, "had some good sense in it."

There are also one or two rather serious philosophical works, which rather surprises me as conversationally she was never one for either systems or theory. Even more surprisingly, there are also a few books on spirituality, in which I've never known her to express the slightest interest. It is a delicate thing, handling other people's books, particularly a friend's, and even in less difficult circumstances and when finality does not hang quite so heavy in the atmosphere, one learns not to question too closely just how and why someone might have books that seem so far out of keeping with what one knows of someone else's interests or character. Books are intimate objects. To see what someone else is reading, even to glance at a stranger's book on the bus, is to get a glimpse into the privacy of another person. This is why that glance is not always welcome, whatever the book. To see, to have been invited to see even just the few books my friend had left on her living-room floor, was a matter of trust. It is best to be careful, so I am. My friend says whatever she wants about the books as she hands them to me, and I listen and agree.

Everyone who reads is occasionally embarrassed by what they read, sometimes even as we read, and some people, myself very much included in this, would rather other people not see some of the things we've read, profitably or not. My friend, though still as proudly, even fiercely independent as her present circumstances will allow, and while never apologetic as that isn't her way, nevertheless clearly does not want me to think any less of her for owning the books we've put in these boxes.

"I've read a lot of junk," she says when we're done, "that's all most of this is. But everybody does."

I agree.

"The best books I ever read, I don't have anymore."

And then we talk for awhile about some of these.

When I leave, I take her books with me, to sell at the bookstore, some of them, and the rest I sell for her elsewhere. I don't remember now giving her the money from doing this. I might have given it to another friend to give to her. She might or might not have taken it from me, so I probably passed it along. It wasn't much, as she'd said it wouldn't be. Doesn't matter.

Before I leave, she tells me, "You probably don't want any of this shit, but if there's anything you want, or anything else you think anyone else would want, just keep it." She's right about this as well; there really isn't anything I want among the books I've collected from her, nor is there anything I think anyone else would particularly like, but again, that doesn't much matter in the end.

Later, when my friend dies, and before I speak at her memorial, a dear friend of hers gives me a framed pastel drawing that our friend did years before. I'd never seen it before, so far as I remember, but it's rather wonderful: a weirdly wild-eyed face, loosely depicted in swirling colors, and a very free self portrait, I like to think. When I look at it, I can hear her laughing.

Tonight, for some reason, I picked up one of the books she said she genuinely loved. I like it too, and own my own copy. I read a little of it, just before sitting down to write this. I was going to write about the book, rather than my friend. Now I think I won't.

That's just between us.

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