In the past year I’ve either sold or given away most of my mile-high pile of books, but for reasons I can’t explain, I’ve kept some that date back to a time when I was young and foolish enough to think that I still had a lifetime to collect and read books. In 1958 I joined a book club called International Collectors Library and bought seven handsomely bound books of classics, each with an attached ribbon one could use for a bookmark: War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Of Human Bondage, Gone with the Wind, Madame Bovary, The Moonstone, and The History of Tom Jones. I’ve read five of them, but not War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov. Too intimidating for me, I guess. I have the never-read James Joyces, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, both of which were really intimidating. I have one by Stephen King that I bought about ten years ago, Insomnia with its nearly nine hundred pages. King has always intimidated me with the length of his novels, and this one I just know I’ll get around to . . . some day. I have all the Hemingway novels and a collection of his short stories from Scribners, all bound in blue. Did I buy them through a book club or separately? Could have been either since I’ve been in and out of more book clubs than I can keep track of. I have a lovely book by Samuel Eliot Morrison called The European Discovery of America that I bought in 1971. If ever a book deserved the word “tome,” this one does. I think I was always going to improve my knowledge of American history, but I never got around to doing it. But I still have it and can at least pretend I will someday forge through it.
In 1974 I bought Annie Dillard’s delightful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a sort of philosophical echo of Thoreau’s Walden Pond. I read it, I marked passages that impressed me, and I’ve kept it because of all the marked passages and the way it made me feel forty years ago. I just re-read the opening passage, and now I know why I’ve kept it all these years:
“I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d half-awaken. He’s stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with is front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.
It was hot, so hot the mirror felt warm. I washed before the mirror in a daze, my twisted summer sleep still hung about me like sea kelp. What blood was this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth. The sign on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain. I never knew. I never knew as I washed, and the blood streaked, faded, and finally disappeared, whether I’d purified myself or ruined the blood sign of the Passover. We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence. . . . ‘Seem like we’re just set down here,’ a woman said to me recently, ‘and don’t nobody know why.’ ”
If you’ve never encountered this book by Annie Dillard, you should find it and read it. I’d send you my copy but I don’t want to part with it, part with all my marginal comments. In fact, I’ve kept all the books I’ve ever marked up with marginal comments. I guess I don’t want any other eyes to see my marginal thoughts, for fear they might think them mundane and silly. But then, this blog contains marginal thoughts and I don’t mind sharing them, so why can’t I part with marginally-marked books? I don’t know. I’m odd, books are odd, book lovers are odd, and life is odd. “And don’t nobody know why.”