When you read a book, it is a story within the story. The French call this mise-en-abîm: the condition of being between two mirrors with an abyss of yous staring back.
My grandmother had a dressing room wallpapered in mirrors. As a child, I liked to stand in the center and slowly move my arms up and down. Like synchronized swimmers in underwater flight, an infinite number of mes moved as one. It made me question my reality like Alice through the looking glass. Was I me? Or was that me once reflected? Twice reflected? Three times? Maybe they thought they were me just as much as I did. Maybe those mes had their own adventures. It was the first time I felt fully confronted by the unsettling nature of existence and its possible layers of life.
Being a reader is similar. You turn the page of the fictional story while an hour of your own passes. The characters breathe, laugh and cry, and so do you. When you finish their tale, you close the book and set it aside, dreaming of their ever-after, while stepping out into yours. But you don’t leave the story as you found it. No, it’s forever changed. The evidence is there: a chocolate smudge, a tea stain, beach sand, dandelion spores, a stray hair, a note, a name, a message. The story has been splintered into a duplicate image, a reflection of you in bits between the pages.
My eighth-grade English teacher decided it’d be a good idea for us to do an introductory unit on Shakespeare. The directions were simple: pick a play and read it. My family owned a weathered volume of The Complete Pelican Shakespeare on the highest shelf of our bookcase. I’d never cracked the spine, favoring colorful copies of Judy Blume and Sweet Valley High still smelling of press glue and Scholastic shipping peanuts. TCPS was my dad’s college copy from the United States Military Academy at West Point. It looked similarly militant, bound in tar black and as thick as a Bible. Nonetheless, I was excited. It was an emblem of maturity to read Master Shakespeare, and I knew exactly where I was headed: Romeo and Juliet.
So I climbed the bookcase and freed the old whale from its dusty catacomb, carried the thing to my bedroom and plopped it open on my desk. What I first remember was how thin the pages were—like edible rice paper. It was this gossamer taction that made a pulpy envelope stand out. It bulged the fine print from fifty pages deep. There, between the Merry Wives of Windsor and All’s Well That Ends Well. I pulled it free and felt the weight of age, ripe for the booklouse taking. The bottom edge had yellowed where it’d spent decades with a foot outside the covers. It was addressed to my father. The seal torn open. A moment of distinct deliberation. It was not my letter to read. However, simply putting it back and moving on to “Two households, both alike in dignity” seemed an insurmountable task for a curious thirteen year old.
I carefully unfolded the letter and recognized my mother’s handwriting. Dated November 1, 1976. Two years before my parent’s marriage and four years before my birth. My stomach double-dipped. “My Love,” it began and went on to speak of longing across great distance, present obstacles, and promises of eternal devotion. Such things I’d only ever heard in epic ballads and fairy tales. I knew my parents loved each other, but up until that day, I’d thought it rather orthodox—their love story. Nothing like the ardor of Penelope and Odysseus, the fire of Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy, the potency of Scarlett and Rhett, or the yearning of Daisy and Gatsby.
Understand, I kept a journal list of eulogized paramours. Marianne Dashwood was my literary kindred, both of us basing our amatory knowledge on illusions. Yet here was reality, and I reimagined my mother: young, beautiful, unmarried and besot with an equally young, handsome lieutenant hundreds of miles away. No bestselling romance couldn’t equal such ripe character fodder.
I tried to move on to Romeo and Juliet, but my mind was far from Verona. It’d taken root in an austere military dorm where my father must’ve run his fingers over that very page, read the words and felt his heart hiccup, then quietly tucked it away beneath layers of sonnets and what some consider the greatest love story ever told.
I had cried every time I’d seen Romeo and Juliet performed, but the first time I read it, my emotions seemed corked. They were tapped later when my father kissed my mother as she served steaming plates of rice and beans. Perplexed but knowing my penchant for pathos, she merely shook her head and said, “Sarah, eat your supper, love.”
I’m drawn to used bookstores like a fruit fly to summer cantaloupe. I seek out these harvest stalls and spend hours flittering about the book rinds, deciding which to crack open and possibly drown in.
In Norfolk, Virginia, my one-bedroom apartment was on the city’s only cobblestone street appropriately named Freemason. Within a week of moving in, I discovered a used bookstore two blocks over called Bibliophile Bookshop. Its entrance was blockaded by hundreds of dog-eared books, a “4 for $1” cart outside, and a salty-haired proprietor who kept the door open in the balmy harbor July and played concertos on his radio.
On one such sticky afternoon, I buzzed the stacks. You’ve got to go deep for the good stuff. All the pretty, contemporary titles are placed at the front for the quick buyer, who is not me. I dig, burrowing down to the pappy volumes that smell like they’ve been dipped in lake water. It was here in the dredges that I found my piece of gold. A vermilion cover plucked from the pile; its inner pages hung on by sinewy threads. The thing looked a bloody mess. I could barely make out the title from the pockmarks, scuffs and stains: Anna Lombard by Victoria Cross. Two strong female names that deserved attention. But before I’d read one word penned by Ms. Cross, a penciled dedication brought me to a full stop. Unmarred by all that had injured the rest of the book, it read: To Edith, Always remember. Love, Mummy. The kind of simple inscription anybody might write. It was the “Always remember” that resonated. Always remember what?
I laxly flipped Anna Lombard pages, my imagination spinning its own tale of what Edith’s Mummy wanted her to remember. Then something fell out. My instinct assumed I’d broken the last bit of binding and the rest of the pages would soon flutter to the floor. I was wrong. At my feet was square, sepia photo with scalloped edges. I saw the back script before the image: Mummy & Loretta before she passed. 1941. On the flipside were two women sitting on a park bench, faces mapped with laugh lines, arms pretzeled to each other. One of these women was Mummy. I studied the faded expressions, and despite rational deduction that both were now deceased, I agonized over to whom the message referred. Who was the “she” that passed? Loretta or Mummy? It ached to think it was the latter—Edith’s Mummy who wrote that she must “always remember”… something, which had to be of great meaning, sentimental or profound, for her to have said so.
I tried to read the first chapter of Cross’s novel but couldn’t sympathize with the main character, Gerald Ethridge, and his faithful love to Anna Lombard. My head and heart were already immersed in another narrative: Mummy and Edith and Loretta. Women who lived real lives and left the tangible proof of their story here—in my hands.
I wanted that book. I still want it. Years later, I can’t get it or them out of my mind. But I didn’t buy it for the proprietor’s $8 price tag. I worried that if I took it from that place, moved it with me to another city or state or country, whatever it was that Mummy wanted Edith to remember, wouldn’t be. Maybe Edith or her kin were somewhere still in Norfolk. This book with all its treasures belonged to them. So I lodged the photo as securely as I could deep inside, wrapped the cover over and placed it on a high shelf where I thought it’d be safe from further ruin or imprudent hands. Someplace where if the right person saw the crimson spine and title, they would remember whatever it was they were to always.
Some will say it’s narcissism and perhaps they are correct, but I leave breadcrumbs of myself in every book. Train and plane tickets are my favorites. I use them as bookmarks and then purposely abandon them.
Recently, I let a friend borrow Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski. When returning my copy she asked, “Were you in Dallas last September?” She was surprised when I said I wasn’t. “It’s just—I found this in your book.” She thumbed through my copy and retrieved a ticket stub. I eyed it and remembered that I’d transferred planes in Dallas on my way home to Virginia. I read the novel on the flight, I explained. She sighed. “Mystery solved!”
I laughed and then felt bad. I hoped her imagination hadn’t been as relentless as mine—that she’d been able to fully engage in Berlinski’s novel without my story nagging at the edges of her dreamscape. But my friend is very much like me, so she’d probably stayed up pondering my mysterious travels more than the fictional Dyalo village and the Walker family trials. I made a mental note to siphon my books’ contents before lending—for the sake of my friends’ reading experiences more than myself.
And yet, my habit continues. I was at a café reading and eating grilled chicken skewers not too long ago. At the end of the meal, I slipped my sauce-splattered receipt in the back of the book. For safe keeping, I told myself, but truthfully hoping that one day, years from now, I’ll rediscover it and remember the taste of sweet rosemary and hickory smoke, the heated blue of El Paso summers, the person I was when I first ventured into that novel’s territory.
These bits of my day-to-day are life fragments, evidence that I was here. My library isn’t simply a collage of ink and paper. It’s stuffed with these secret stashes. And I use a variety of items: empty envelopes, expired coupons, recipes, gum wrappers that make the pages fruity fresh, photographs, baggage claims, postcards, birthday cards, To Do lists, sticky notes scribbled by my husband with messages ranging from Gatsby’s out of dog food to I love you, have a beautiful day. All stuck in the pages.
I’d never consciously appraised this book littering behavior until the Berlinski episode. I wondered if I was alone in my bizarre fascination, then I was introduced to the Forgotten Bookmarks blog. Michael Popek, a used-bookstore bibliophile, posts all the lovely discoveries he finds in his shop’s acquisitions. I spent more time than I care to admit scrolling through his online treasure chest, captivated by the notes, tickets, letters, photographs, drawings and recipes—the layers of stories in the stories at large.
As an author and reader, I’m routinely juggling viewpoints, seeing through the eyes of my characters, others’ characters and my own. It’s a somewhat schizophrenic existence. So I question where I stand in the mise-en-abîms: At the top of the watery abyss looking down or at the bottom looking up? Or maybe I’m one of the many reflections between, moving her arms in rhythm with the others, yet uniquely me with a story indelibly my own.
Image credit: Pexels/Suzy Hazelwood.