The house vomits everything a family has accumulated over three decades. Appliances, utensils, tchotchkes, forgotten photographs, important documents—everything has to be packed away. Everything impinges on them, whining to be replaced, put back out of sight, left alone.
As we make piles to help my partner’s parents sort through their effects the day before their kitchen will be demoed, his father stumbles across a basket full of books—Native Son catches my eye. Uncle, can I have it? He glances at the book, wondering why he’s still holding onto it. My partner’s parents have reached the end of their patience. It would be simpler to throw everything away, rather than figure out what’s worth saving. As more books resurface, uncle says, Rajat, you want this; I’m not sure whether it’s a question.
The next day, my partner bristles at the books I cart home from the Performing Arts library, a few blocks from our apartment. I hold them the way my school librarian showed my third-grade class—palm cupping the spine, spine facing down. I set them in a cubby near my desk, next to books they may never have met or brushed up against before. My goal is to reorganize them, remove them from the system of classification inflicted upon them by the library. The essay I may write using some or none of these books feels like a dinner party I’m hosting—which books will play nice with one another? Which books will start up an argument?
More books? my partner asks. So dusty! He’s resigned to the fact that I’ve never taken to using the iPad he gave me years ago. I once saw a booger fall out of a library book when I was a kid. Now I’m traumatized, he says.
I roll my eyes—our little joke. I apologize for the lean of our shelves, which the previous tenants had affixed to the walls, a lean that seems to get more precarious each week. Without any shelf space these days, I try maintain tidy piles of magazines, printouts, and books, on the floor, piles that grow taller by the day. I know when I’m ready for each book I acquire. I touch it and feel it. But until then, the stacks become shakier. All the while, I pretend they’re not on the floor.
The Old English word “dustsceawung” means, literally, “a contemplation of dust.” It’s an understanding not of what’s been lost, or the transience of things, but of how the past persists in the present. To consider dust, however, is also to consider the work left to do with things that impinge on us. Dust collects because I haven’t circulated in a book’s ideas, or had a chance to let their words inhabit me.
What is it about books left on the sidewalk that makes me weep? As Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “In the highest civilization, the book is still the highest delight.” I take it upon myself to pluck used books off a stranger’s stoop or from a trash can lid. This is how they sneak into my life, crawling with traces of the people who held them in the past, who touched them, who were touched by them. Strangers, like germs, cling to the pages of the books I steal for myself.
Books don’t belong on the floor, my mother always said to me. For South Asians, the logic is twofold: books are considered sacred objects, as vessels of knowledge; and two, our feet are considered unclean. We keep books off the ground, above where our feet travel. This responsibility toward books confers on them a quiet dignity. Accidently grazing a book with my foot today makes me shudder—I instinctively reach for it, touching it to my forehead as if to offer an apology, a little idiosyncrasy I’ve even performed in public. I promise myself I’ll treat books well, for they’ve done the same for me.
Books left on the street are contaminated on account of their not belonging there. For the anthropologist Mary Douglas, writing in 1966, “dirt” is that which a society considers out of place. What we deem dirty demonstrates how we draw the boundary between what we think of as sacred and profane. Accordingly, things became polluted because they find themselves existing outside of a neat category. We avoid pollution for its potentially threatening effects on us. Douglas’s idea maps neatly onto the South Asian construct of dirt that I grew up adhering to.
Most Saturday mornings, I’m woken up by the sounds of the garbage truck as it churns outside my building. Glass bottles shatter as they’re crushed, and the truck lets out a low grumble, its belly full on the things that have exhausted their value, that no longer give us pleasure. As I climb out of bed and see the stack of books on my nightstand, I wonder whether any books have been left downstairs, and what future awaits them. No one would leave a book to be thrown away and compacted, would they? The sanitation workers are attentive and considerate. They wouldn’t let such a fate befall a book.
In the afternoon, my partner and I pass long tables on Broadway piled high with bargain books. I wonder where they all came from, and why I don’t spend more time sifting through them. They’ve been spared the violence of dumpsters and compactors. Kind Haitian men sit next to them, never interested in helping you finding what you’re looking for, but always available for a friendly chat. I’m not even sure I’m looking for anything in particular. I twist around myself that I cannot approach these tables and locate anything for myself. The books lack order, or at least the curated appearance of a bookstore. The burden falls to me to scan everything, or walk away empty-handed without trying.
September 1 feels like the most popular moving day in New York. Thousands of people either bid farewell to this city with a sigh of relief; arrive with trucks and boxes and high hopes to be welcomed here; or are simply—not so simply—moving from one part of New York to another. This new neighborhood will be more bearable than their old one as long as it feels fresh. For days before and after September 1, the traces of our neighbors’ lives get tossed out and left behind. Near trash cans sit anxious heaps of books. I feel lucky that they aren’t discarded so much as displaced.
A friend who was visiting my partner and me asked me, one night, Who in New York is your person? Who can you count on for anything, even just for being lazy with on the couch? Her question pricked me. I realized I’ve spent almost a decade in New York with only one or two or three relationships like this. Some friends have moved away, others are near and we’ve let time fill the gaps between us. That night, my friend stirred something within me I didn’t know I yearned for.
Discarded, possibly contaminated books seem precious—even if I’ve never heard of the titles. They are the “unconsoled,” Arundhati Roy’s word—ever whining. But the possibility that books might rescue me is why I pluck them off the street. I protect them so that one day, they may save me.
Somewhere on the Upper West Side, I walked away from what must have been a decade of National Geographic magazines, with their canary-yellow spines neatly fanned out, catching the sunlight. The shade of yellow varied subtly from issue to issue, as if time in the sun had faded some issues left out on coffee tables and not others, the ones toted around in New Yorker canvas bags. I left them all behind, however, and walked away. If I couldn’t cart away all the issues, how could I choose just a few? I realized, a block later, that my logic was flawed: this treasure didn’t represent the full material output of the magazine since its founding. I should’ve just rescued what I could and let the rest go. I couldn’t save all of them.
A year later, on my way to the hair salon, I passed a handsome leather armchair in good condition that wouldn’t take much effort to bring home, with help. By the time I stepped out of my appointment, freshly shorn, a white boy was sitting smugly in my armchair. I presumed, with indignation, that he was waiting for a friend to give him a hand to get it off the street. Half an hour ago, it was trash. Then it was mine. Now, it disgusted me that I saw a stranger with his butt in something I’d wordlessly laid claim to.
Books were never mine to buy. Still, I grew up in a house of books—a double-volume of Grimm’s’Fairy Tales in pistachio green and gold-flecked pages stands out in my mind. Even if I never saw my parents open their copy of The English Patient or Sons and Lovers, I came to respect books, never mishandling them, or casting them aside. I spent a summer with Vikram Seth’s 1,500-word tome A Suitable Boy, humbled to have borrowed something I didn’t own—both book and time; humbled to immerse myself in 1950s Delhi, the world my parents were born into, a world I’d never experience. Even the Yellow Pages had a place in our home, with its supple shape, its soft, onionskin pages bearing thousands of inches of digits. Parents who leave the South Asian subcontinent teach their children, a world away, an epoch later, how to save everything for an era to come. Kitchen countertops and coffee tables spill over with reading material. They teach us who we’ll become.
The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes of the mnemonic power of smell to conjure up childhood. With just a sniff, our past selves come flooding back to us. And the French noun sillage, from the verb meaning “to trail behind,” literally means the drift of perfume lingering in the air after a person departs. More poetically, perhaps, sillage is the subtle impression a person leaves behind. If a body can leave this trace, cannot the smell of an old book do so, too? Can selves pass from one body to another?
Hinduism may have taught me to treat books with respect, keep them off the floor, never throw them away. But according to Hindu philosophy, the soul lives many lives during its journey toward self-realization. During these rebirths, a soul passes from body to body until it’s eventually released, freed from the material world. How stirring, then, to consider books as liberated from their dusty covers, their words sent into the ethers. What could this mean other than the disembodied, sanitized iClouds that my partner urges me to pull my books down from?
Books represent our fundamental unwillingness to dispose of knowledge, as well as our desire to connect with one another. Do books ever wonder whether they’re going to better homes from the ones they came from? Do they delight in being chosen from a random heap? Do they smile when we crack open their pages, gazing on sentences we’ve never read, or sentences we’ve loved for years and they get to show us again, as if it were the first time?
 Since the days of colonial New York, May 1 used to be considered “Moving Day.” On this day, all leases in the city expired at 9 a.m., causing thousands of tenants to change their residence at the same time.
Image Credit: Pixabay.