It is not a metaphor to live books. I know it’s true. I once heard it articulated perfectly by Haruki Murakami: “The question is not ‘will one form overtake another?’ Forms are always overtaking one another. And yet we still have television, film, books. The better question is, and the question that must be asked first in order for us to have a conversation is, have books ‘happened’ to you? Unless your answer to that question is ‘yes,’ I’m unsure how to talk to you.”
Books happen to some of us. There is a time and a place.
It’s in the dust-filtered light barely blading through the slight glassfront at 37 rue de la Bûcherie. I palmed and fingered the carts and boxes outside first, the English cart in particular, waiting for my heart to slow down to normal person before entering. At age 28, books meant more to me than people. I wanted my entrance into the place to change me. With all of my heart. Once inside I felt the air made from so many pages and bindings fluttering over entire epochs. I walked for hours between rows of books. I sat on the floor. I leaned against paper spines. I pressed my fingers between pages and authors. I didn’t know then how I’d carry the books I bought that day beyond two dead marriages, how I’d sit on the floor of a cramped row, ravaged as a tragic novel, feeling . . . inanimate comfort.
It’s in the lean and suave white-haired man who walked up to me hips first, cocksure in the aisle of Henry Miller and Anais Nin at 261 Columbus Avenue. My name is Lawrence, he said, as if he walked straight out of the story. When he put his lined and loose-skinned hand on my shoulder and asked me my name I was scared, but not of him. He smelled like pot and Old Spice. The books all around me competing with their aromatic pulp and paper. Me knowing not anything then, just living my red bloom with all its crazed sexual push and pull, like space junk and youth splatter, and so when I walked with him to Vesuvio’s next store and drank whisky with beer chasers we acted exactly like, recklessly like, beautifully dumb like a chapter. I held my copy of House of Incest between our torsos there at the bar like a deranged girl fan. My name is youth, I said, all mouth and thoughtless want. Eros meeting Thanatos.
I murdered my first beautiful love at 154 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village. I was twenty-one. Him standing in the street in front of a shitty ass 10th floor two-room apartment, his hands dangling from his arms like weights. Me running away in the rain with what was left of our love running down my legs, underwearless, flipping him off as I ran, laughing the laugh of angry girls, shooting the heel sparks of messed-up girls, until I was out of breath and almost lost, then not knowing anywhere else to take my broken and drunk and laughing and crying self but to books, because unlike lovers or husbands, books never ask you if you are crazy or wrongheaded or in love with death, like there’s something wrong with it. Greenwich Village lesbian saviors gave me coffee and Gertrude Stein. And a room.
Under the far-off gaze of the Space Needle and inside the dreamy aroma of bum pee ocean salt car exhaust in Pioneer Square I stole Empire of the Senseless. I was old enough to know better but not old enough to hold down a job. I shoved it down the back of my jeans where I usually hid Safeway steaks once a week. So 20 years later when the venue upgraded and changed to a bright and airy loft as trendy as any Seattle architect’s skull probably looks on the inside, wasn’t it necessary for me to repeat the crime, to christen the skylights and cedar with my undying presence? I am here, at 1521 10th Avenue now. I’m on the side of independent bookstores, but I’m even more on the side of the books—I’ll go wherever you take them. Is that bum pee on my shoes? You can be a grown woman, nearly 50, with a house and a job and a child and still lift a copy of Kafka on the Shore. Your heart will still race. The only difference is you will put it back just to cover your guilt and thrill. Maybe.
In the Blue Room at 1005 West Burnside I shared a flask with a woman I loved who didn’t love me. In the Red Room I put big shiny gold Oregon Book Award Finalist stickers on random transgressive books. In the Purple Room I took a nap on the floor after flunking out of college. In the Orange Room I kissed a hermaphrodite. In the Pearl Room, the day my father died, I sat on the floor and ate a piece of paper I’d quietly ripped from a Frank Lloyd Wright photography book, holding it in my mouth until it softened, chewing it until it pasted, not knowing what else to do or feel, wondering, can rage be love? The big oversized art and photography books bearing witness.
The aura of books. It can happen.
It’s at 1715 NE Broadway, where last spring I read from my book The Chronology of Water, and at the end of the line of people whose books I was grateful to sign, my past showed up and shattered my present. A woman moving up the line, my throat clenched by the fist of the lives we didn’t live. My hands suddenly foreign to me. It’s in the bear hug the bookstore owner Sally gave me later, helping me to not fly apart a molecule at a time, helping me to be the writer.
I live books.
All these bookstores giving my life back to me in pieces and pages and stacks and rows. All these years. All the hands that touch them. All the lives alchemizing into stories or images or poems. All the times I trusted books more than people, or turned to books instead of people, or gave books to people like someone who doesn’t quite get how to do relationships right. All those words between bodies. All the places I’ve entered for sanctuary.
Lidia Yuknavitch won a 2012 PNBA Book Award for her memoir The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books). She teaches writing, literature, film and women’s studies in Portland. She’s the author of three works of short fiction: Her Other Mouths, Liberty’s Excess and Real to Reel, and a book of literary criticism, Allegories of Violence. Her work has appeared in Ms., The Iowa Review, Exquisite Corpse, Another Chicago Magazine, Fiction International, Zyzzyva, The Rumpus and elsewhere. At the end of the bio on her website, she writes, “Oh. And I am a very, very good swimmer. Which must be why, as my friend Mia says, I have not drowned. When pulled under, kick.”