I’m that girl scribbling in the margin of your Pulitzer winning poetry book. Bubble-lettering “ME!” in the top left corner of page three. Cracking the spine. Nuzzling the cover. Taking picture of my eyes and half my nose peeking over that accordion of top pages that you get when you open a book right down the middle. I look through the books in the local used bookstore for ones that someone else has loved like I will. Where are the coffee stains? Where are the fingerprint maps on the edge where you held the page just after baking? I want that book with the oil smudge of a Southern farmer after a long day, the faded yellow of the back cover from the sun on a porch, and someone else’s name inside, in cursive, which was lost after second grade for me.
So now that you know all of that, I can explain this blog. Last week I went to my second favorite used bookstore (the biggest one in my area) and picked up four books I had been recommended. Edward McKay uses milk crates as shelves and I had to dig to the back row of books (behind other books) to find one copy of Housekeeping (supposedly the best women’s fiction of the 20th century even though I don’t believe fiction has a “gender genre.”) I picked it up without flipping through like I normally would because it was the only copy and recommend to me by a professor. (If you’re working on setting and beautiful language in description in your own writing, read this book).
While the book is really character, description driven and not very much plot at all, in fact I think it gets a plot on page 170ish (out of 219), I think it was beautifully written and I’ll share some quotes at the bottom. However, this blog isn’t really about the book, but what I found hidden inside the folds of its pages.
I looked through as I started to read, first searching for the triangle bent pages that show where someone stopped, bookmarked, or just wanted to remember a quote to write down later (that’s me). But I found other exciting things. The first wonderful thing about this book is the stain on the back cover. Unlike some people who would automatically think someone dropped this book in a pile of poop, I thought something different. I’m always drinking coffee in spill-able mugs while I drive. The coffee often drips over the edge when it’s stuck in the awkward cup-holder and forced in tilted because of its handle. I’m too cheap to buy one of those eco-safe ones from Target for 20 bucks. All this is just to say that it leaves a sticky mark in the cup-holder or underneath the e-break where I sometimes place them. My dad does the same thing with Pepsi so it must run in the family. I’m sure at some point I could spill coffee on my seat, as I often do on the cute shirt I’m wearing to work. (These are all signs of addiction). And like all other book lovers I keep piles of books in my car (literally it’s a small library, you should see people’s faces when they step in the car) which may or may not get spilled on or placed in a coffee puddle. So, the stain on the back – most likely from a coffee/book lover like myself who sips and drives. (It’s probably time for an intervention).
My favorite thing about the book is that Claire signed the inside cover as if to say, “this will memorialize me. This is mine.” I can’t believe being the book hoarder that I am that I haven’t gone through with an ink pen to every inside cover of every book that I own. Part of me wants to say that the cover is sacred and unless it’s a book from fifth grade (The BFG) I probably won’t be writing in the cover. The BFG is special because it has a whole garden crayon drawn in the inside cover. I was a reading artist it seems.
It didn’t end there though. In my area, we have an amazing independent bookstore called Quailridge Books and it seems in 2005, Claire bought the book there.
I can just imagine Claire swinging the glass door open, hearing the chime of her own entrance, her coat billowing behind her in the winter wind (she’d be the kind of girl to leave it unbuttoned). The receipt says February 12th which is my nephews birthday (another odd coincidence that I will say was lined up by the stars).
Maybe she was in a hurry and it was on the recommended by staff rack that spins so you can see all the books in one sweep. Maybe Robinson was going to read at some point in the coming months and so they had placed it on the first shelf as you walk in. Robinson isn’t local. Or maybe, she wasn’t in a hurry, and she was recommended this book by a professor and so she went straight to the R’s, reading just before Richard Russo and just after Tom Robbins. There the white spine, with bold, all capital red lettering read “Housekeeping.”
Or perhaps, she perused the store. She picked up greeting cards for relatives up North hoping it would thaw their hearts from the cold, and the clearing of driveways, and the sounds of snow plows in the night. She looked through a Dubus collection, or Quindlen because they were both judging the National Book Award and Claire knew that she wanted to win that in ten years. Joan Didion would win in 2005 for nonfiction and all of America would grieve their husbands. I know that this is the version of what she did because she also bought a “blank notebook” for ten dollars with tax of 70 cents.
I secretly knew other things the whole time as well. Claire went in with a list of things she’d like to get, a list of things she’d like to do before the evening. She had a plan. The book had been mentioned in our newspaper, The News & Observer and she had written her list directly over the article on Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s newer book that a lot more of you may be familiar with. She wrote the list on February 6. She’s so busy it took her until my nephew’s birthday to go to the store and collect her findings. On the 6th, a Saturday in 2005, she wanted to do the following.
- reading + breakfast
- quarters + laundry
- deposit payroll + pay rent
- fog @ Flying Saucer 2:30 pm
- Regulator – Gilead + Housekeeping > by Marilynne Robinson
Claire is somewhere at a desk this evening smudging the knuckle of her pinky finger with ink, dragging her right hand across the page, margin to margin. She is tapping her left foot because she is anxious to write the scene where the girl gets stuck under the bleachers during a football game, and it is raining. She has socks on, a barrette pulling back her bangs. She uses ink, the lines of her palm are damp with sweat, there are sounds coming from outside the window in front of her desk. The sounds are of small birds, or a trash can moving slightly on its wheels. Claire will write this scene and then go downstairs to kiss her husband goodnight and peel a clementine using the nail of her thumb. She will eat each part whole without chewing them in pieces, watching the orange insides bleed a bit onto her fingers. She will go to bed with her hands sticky, her fingers coated in black residue. She will begin again on that scene in the morning, she will over-revise.
You finish the story, aren’t we all Claire ourselves?