The dead woman’s name was Julia. And the seven boxes of books her husband donated to my library emanate the fading glow of a life lived in language and literature, lost to sickness or other tragedy that I will never discover. Her name echoes in the books themselves, Julia penned here and there on the front covers, and they give shape to her reading life living abroad in The Hague. I find in my travels through the books a copy of Lolita covered in thin, quick black script.
I would have liked her. I know this because I like the books that are piling up on the table as I unpack the orange and brown Blokker verhuisdoos pile and stack them by genre, by usefulness, by oddity. Timeout Paris 2009, The Urban Dictionary, the last Harry Potter, the new Dan Brown, The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis and The Portable Nietzche. Fantasy and practicality, spiritually and nihilism all represented, all recently published, therefore all recently selected and brought home and added to a personal library full of AP English resources, The Illustrated Elements of Style and Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition. Julia’s husband had told me two defining things about her, that she was an AP English teacher and that she had died last year. Her books are giving me more details, filling in some of the gradations in the shadows that once was a woman’s life.
Julia’s books are making me ask unsettling questions. How much will anyone be able to know about us when we die? What do our books say about us? When we are gone, what will strangers in used bookshops or libraries or garage sales wonder about our reading lives? Will they be perplexed about why anyone would feel compelled to buy so many books on speeches or the Brontës or the mechanics of writing? Or will they simply be bored?
My sophisticated English colleague Mary Ann, looking appraisingly at the teetering mounds of unpacked books as the school day ended, and said that they were both “of the minute” and “eccentric”. Uncommon. My kind of reader.