Because I hold books in such high regard, finding one quite by chance feels serendipitously ordained. I always wonder, is the book lost or intentionally left behind just so I could find it? Sometimes it feels like a mystical encounter with a non-sentient being.
Beach houses, small hotels and B&Bs are all good places for this to happen. Everywhere I go I notice what books are left on the bedstand or jammed into a bookshelf where they look longingly at you, waiting patiently for someone to give them a (new) home.
One hotel I stayed at in India took this idea of the Lost Book quite seriously and had an entire room devoted to the volumes that guests had left behind over the years. On the inside front cover of every book, someone had carefully written the room number and date of the find. Such careful documentation! I was touched that they approached these abandoned books with the same regard one would attend to a lost child or pet. With a hospitality so common in India, hotel guests were invited to peruse the shelves. I found two great books in that room that accompanied me for the rest of my trip—Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda and The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux, both of them perfect for my peregrinating adventure in the subcontintent.
So the back page of today’s New York Times Book Review was just my kind of piece. Leanne Shapton, author and illustrator, introduces her topic, Summer Shares, with words that resonated deeply with me:
There is fate in the moldy, dog-eared paperbacks found on the shelves and bedside tables of summer guest rooms. When the masterpiece we’ve dutifully brought along stalls five pages in, the accidental bounty of other people’s discarded reading beckons. Like conversations with strangers on a train, these random literary encounters can be unsettling, distracting or life changing. Eight writers tell us what they have read on their summer vacations.
The selections by 8 writers are all interesting. Maile Meloy chose to write about a classic:
“The Italians,” by Luigi Barzini, was in our room near Baratti, Italy, just across from the island of Elba, where Napoleon was exiled. There was no window in the bathroom because the local government wouldn’t give permission for it, but there was talk of adding a small one secretly at night. That made no sense until I started reading “The Italians” and Barzini explained Italy to me.
And this by Arthur Bradford:
One hot summer we rented this house near Austin, Tex., that was on a river with natural springs where you could swim. I found a paperback copy of Charles Portis’s “Dog of the South” in the house, which I’m ashamed to say I stole because it was so funny. I had to have it! Since then I’ve bought other copies of that book and left them at people’s houses in an attempt to reverse the karma.
A note about Leanne Shapton: She is a perfect author to take on this topic. Her most recent publication is Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. What a great title and what an ingenious idea. Shapton has created a fake auction catalog featuring the physical objects the remained afer the dissolution of a four year relationship. From Liesl Schillinger’s review of the book in the New York Times:
Taken together, the item descriptions provide a running, cumulative portrait of one couple’s glorious rise and deflating fall. . . For people who have ever thought that the little gestures, tokens and inside jokes of their relationships were unique to them, Ms. Shapton’s book comes as a poignant, jarring reminder of the sameness of the steps that so many couples retrace. . . Despite the mist of melancholy that floats amid this photographic record, there is also humor, caprice, knowingness and the implicit suggestion that changing feelings and fading possessions can’t rob a true romance of the value it had at its height. As Lenore and Hal’s remembrances show, a love affair is worth more than its trappings could fetch at a jumble sale.