The school library gives away excess books, usually obscure philosophy titles that have lingered on shelves for years, dusted with age and the prints of wizened grad students. Wednesday, they had a table full. I survey the jumbled piles on a table by the main entrance, pluck and shuffle them as I scan the titles.
Now and then, I open one. The binding crinkles, as if glued into place, and the yellowed pages exhale their pale aroma, a warm, dusty tang that has always reminded me of cigars and cedar wardrobes.
I can’t help but steal a few: some Heidegger, Dostoevsky, a Kaufmann anthology of Existentialist writings. I slip the delicate volumes into my backpack and continue.
I suppose I have a thing for crinkled, old books. At home, I sometimes look at my shelf, my eyes passing most covers and lingering on the weathered bindings, webbed with rumples from continued re-readings. I know many of these books have a history with me, a span they spent in my backpack with rich stories creased into their covers.
A few plays, slim volumes with the binding straining to hold, sit on the shelf. A version of Dracula with van Helsing’s lines highlighted and paired with copious marginal notes. I would pull it from my back pocket and read them while waiting at the doctor’s office. I recall the friends I made, the joy I had. An Agatha Christie play reminds me of my first major role on stage: Inspector Thomas, the long hours at practice suddenly swelling into an ecstasy, telling me I wanted to act.
Then, I see Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, a short book about a boy’s search for Enlightenment, which I read my final year of high school. At the time, I volunteered in a V.A. hospital for transport service. We would wait for a call in a collection of seats, a desk with a phone, and a coffee table spanned by magazines and soft covers we had looted from waiting rooms.
I would read about Siddhartha, while I waited for a call, either a wheelchair, stretcher or lab sample. One of us would answer the phone, another would get the call–usually the most bored of us–and the rest of us would read and talk. One man was a playwright. Most were retired veterans. A few were my own age.
I got a few interesting calls: a WWII with a punctured lung, a Vietnam vet who had lost an arm, a vet from Korea who was a journalist. Men with broken bodies, sometimes with broken spirits.
I thought of Siddhartha’s own quest to face death.
From Siddhartha, my eyes rove the shelf and lock on The Hobbit, my playful escape from depression in high school. Through a closed door, the world yawned open.
Then, I see my collection of H.G. Wells books that first enflamed my passion for reading in eighth grade. Next, Hamlet, worn out by its constant re-readings through high school and college. And a new addition: Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, the Walter Kaufmann translation.
Last year, I took that book everywhere, greasing the pages with thumbprints as I traced its prose. Splotches of food and lines of dirt track its travel. I had to tape pages back as they tumbled out. It smells of cigars, backpacks, and mountain tops.
As my girlfriend and I continued to drift apart and said many hard goodbyes, I found comfort in his passage on Star Friendship: “We were friends and have become estranged. But this was right, and we do not want to conceal and obscure it from ourselves as if we had reason to feel ashamed…”
It’s collections of adages bore me through hard times.
So as I take up books from the library table, weathered with the same creases and crinkled pages, I wonder what stories fill the stains on their pages and what long hours deepen the wrinkles on their covers, where their scratches and cuts surfaced, why the yellowed pages have the face of an old man.
And most of all, where is its old friend–the hands that once creased and thumbed through its tender folds?