— This piece originally appeared in Meanjin
Every week when I visit my GPO box it’s filled with new books from publishing houses, wrapped in cardboard packages like I’m living some sort of year-long, literary Christmas.
Along with the classics I wish to get to, novels I purchase, and research tomes as neglected as my thesis, there is the steady stream of latest releases for various freelancing deadlines that tumbles out of box 4094—making me feel as though I’m always reading both too much and too little, my life a blur of reading and rereading and not reading.
But I find myself wanting to write here about a more personal kind of reading, inspired by two sites I stumbled across recently that provide such voyeuristic pleasure they have become a new addiction of mine, guiding my choice of books for the last few weeks.
Together as Always and The Books They Gave Me—sites not about books themselves, but the occasion for receiving them. The first is a collection of images of the dedications and inscriptions on inside covers. They chronicle romances forgotten, ‘This is hoping a very special person has a very special Valentine’s Day. Jeff.’ Discarded messages of inspiration ‘Never Settle! Celebrate your victories but never believe that you can’t do better!’ And my personal favourite, the grammatically inept dedication in a book called Love Is A Mix Tape: ‘I hope you enjoy this book and let it remind you of me. Your a amazing advisor and a even better friend. Remember that your badass always.’ They’re daggy and sweet and tinged slightly with sadness when you learn that each of the lovingly inscribed books have been found in thrift shops, discarded by their owners.
The Books They Gave Me is more revealing—accounts submitted by readers of the circumstances surrounding a book they received. The gift of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with a description that simply reads, ‘He gave me this. It didn’t last.’ Or a copy ofLolita ‘I was 19. He was 30. I’m not sure he thought this gift through.’ They’re funny and honest and almost always romantic.
The most fascinating part is their attempts to understand what it was the person was trying to say—whether it’s a clue or a plea or a tease. As one writes of a gift of Bukowski’s Ham on Rye ‘Reading the book made me even more depressed, and I wondered why in the world he had given it to me.’ And I guess that’s the interest in the book as gift, reading the novel through their eyes, trying to see what it is in the prose or concepts or the characters that they wanted to show you.
The sites inspired me to look at my bookshelf differently—for works that are meaningful to me beyond their own words or narratives. There are books from my childhood—fairy stories with inscriptions from obscure relatives whose names I can now barely decipher. There’s one with the note ‘Oh it’s Heaven. Give me a Hammer!’ in the extravagant hand of my now deceased grandpa, who always made me laugh. I’m still baffled as to what he meant.
And as I got older, the men who gave me books I still treasure, works by T.S. Eliot, Douglas Adams, Joseph Heller, Henry Milller, and the one who gave me what it is I’ve been reading this week—Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince.
He found a copy of it in a little bookstore in the main town while we were away together, four days in a stone cabin by the sea. I’d never heard of this book before he mentioned it, and he couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it. It’s a famous children’s story he said and he bought me a copy in that distinctive orange and white. The book sat in his suitcase the whole trip, nestled there amongst his clothes, waiting for me.
By the end of those four days I was too afraid to tell him that I loved him, hoping he might say it first. The night we got back home he wrapped it in black tissue paper and drew a silver heart on the front, handing it to me without comment. At the time I treasured the silver heart on the paper more than the book itself—the first sign that he might love me too. The book never had an inscription from him, but I kept the wrapping paper folded up inside its covers, and it’s like that still.
I never read it until after we broke up. When I took it from the shelf recently, the silver heart scrawled on the brittle paper was a reminder of all the things unsaid.
And so I read it. It’s about friendship, and wisdom, and growing up. A funny little prince on his lonely planet with only a rose for company, travels to earth and meets a pilot who has crashed in the desert. He teaches the pilot about the way adults see things, which is to not really see at all.
It’s easy to read things into it in hindsight, and I guess I’ll never know what it was he wanted to show me in it. They weren’t the ones I wanted at the time, but all these many months later I’m thankful for the words he gave me.
So that is what I find myself reading. A children’s book bought for me by a man I once loved because I like to procrasta-read bookish tumblrs.