June 9, 2014
One of the best parts about being an intern at BookThug is getting a chance to talk about the books that I love. If you’re a regular BookThug reader, then you’ve probably had one of those aha! moments where a book felt like it switched on some light in you, illuminating what was otherwise unfathomable. The geography of each human soul is littered with this unravaged beauty, these sharp dark corners, and undiscovered lands. We can ache at a sound or a scent that stirs something in us, but it’s poetry, music, books, and art that help us to translate those emotions into words, they help us to understand the parts of ourselves we cannot know.
At first I found myself highlighting a line or two, then a paragraph here or there, until it seemed that the whole book was marked up, and there wasn’t a page left in all of Air Carnation that I didn’t love, that I didn’t want to turn into one of those aggressively marketed quotable phrases on t-shirts or mugs. I wanted some way to carry those words with me, beyond leaving them on my shelf. That’s how I felt when I read Marquez, and how I felt when I read Neruda. But here’s what I’m getting at, and it requires a backstory. (But someone very famous and important and quotable once said that only bad stories have backstories, and good stories just get right to it.) But I’ll tell it anyway, in my long-winded backstory kinda’ve way, in case you’ve gotten this far.
You might as well stick around for another paragraph or two.
One summer in New York, in one of those magical summer days in New York where you imagine anything is possible, and it is, I walked into 12th Street Books. (Now sadly closed, and a steakhouse, which joined the fate of many long-running independent bookstores.) I ducked my head and walked down the stairs, roving through the rows and shelves and stacks. As usual, the proprietor ignored me. There wouldn’t be a used bookstore worth going to if it wasn’t musty, if the books didn’t feel like jewels in the mud, waiting to be unearthed, and if the owner wasn’t as crusty as week-old bread. We daydreamers and book lovers tend to enjoy our literary stereotypes. We enjoy a good character. Someone who unzips the ordinary, precisely by inverting into something more fictional than real.
But to cut it short (because you’re thinking, get on with it! it’s already been a paragraph) as I roamed and loitered and felt up the delicate spines of some books I would never live to read, the owner approached me.
“I noticed you had picked this up.” Oh? My face said it, but my mouth stayed shut. Here was the character talking to me in the flesh. I imagined Dickens. I imagined stuffy. I imagined reading glasses and an elbow-patched blazer. “I am not going to sell you this book.” No? Shit. What had I done? “I’m going to give it to you.” He weighed it in his hand for emphasis, as if he was imparting something more precious than a paperback reprint. It was as if he were giving a piece of himself. He looked down at it, apologetic almost, trying to smooth the frayed corners with his index finger, and placed it in my hands. “I keep it at my bedside. Re-read it each year. It’s that good. Take it. If you like it as much as I did, you’ll do the same. Pass it on.” I felt like someone witnessing something that only happens to people who belong onscreen. A surge of Never-Ending Story hit me. Jumanji. Every dumb thing I could imagine. Was it Bedknobs and Broomsticks? Roller-coasters. Harry Potter? Horses and carriages. My references were getting mixed up. Every fantasy librarian. Every delicious library. Every Nancy Drew mystery. I nodded. The exchange felt like leaning into a bookshelf and discovering there was something else behind it. Why me?
A year later, the place was closed. Perhaps he just gave away too many books, or maybe it was just meant to be, like diseased trees, eventually, when one goes, the whole lot has to die. There’s only a handful of independent bookstores now. The literary spirit is fragile. I like to imagine it survives on love.
I recommend the book a lot, but I never gave it away. Maybe I should get around to buying another copy, and then leave it on the subway for someone to pick up and enjoy. I always thought I’d be the pay-it-forward do-gooder, littering the city streets with good reads. I’d be the masked avenger, leaving my initials on the inside back cover, so that the press would write stories about the mysterious figure who has left books all over the city. I haven’t done that either. I don’t do much. I have a list of 55.5 things I haven’t gotten around to since last Christmas. Except for read, a lot.
But this backstory is important in telling you that Air Carnation, may be the first book that I give away. It’s the kind of book you ought to keep at your bedside and re-read. One of those books that may just light up the dark places in you. One of those books you’ll want to place into someone’s palms and just walk away. In a small unscripted moment, without the eyes of anyone watching you, as BookThug readers, I encourage you to go and turn Toronto magical. Pick a bright sunny day. Pick an unsuspecting person, carve out a piece of your soul, and leave it in a strangers open hand. This summer, Air Carnation will be my subway BookThug giveaway. I’ll be passing it on, as well as adding it to my bedside collection.
And stay tuned for the interview with Guadalupe Muro, author of Air Carnation.
What book(s) will you be passing on to others, and/or adding to your bedside book
collection? Hashtag #BTreading and share it with us on Twitter at @BookThug.
The views expressed in this BookThug blog entry are held by the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of BookThug.
Puneet Dutt is a MA candidate in the Literatures of Modernity program at Ryerson University and currently works as an intern for BookThug. She has completed a marathon, and when she is not working, running, or doing coursework, she is tasting the words of great poets on her tongue. The League of Canadian Poets published her poem, “The Lonesome Lunch,” as a New Poet Selection for the 2013 National Poetry Month and her poem “Salon” was published by Canadian Literature (Summer 2013). She resides in Toronto with her husband. (Follow her on Twitter: @Puneet_Dutt.)