Why My Bookshelves Will Never Be Empty


I recently came across a phone number scrawled on the back of a bookmark tucked into a book I haven’t opened in almost twenty years. The book’s neglect is not unique. People sometimes ask why through dozens of moves—including three cross-country—I have kept shelves-full of books with which this one has quietly mingled all these years. Do you re-read them? they ask. My answer sounds unlikely, even as I say it. Have I actually ventured to re-discover the language that called out the first time around for its sentences to be underlined or pages marked with tiny triangle folds? No. I haven’t.

And yet, not on the pages but stuffed between them—a discovery.

Because it’s what we do today, I Googled the phone number. I learned two things. The area code pointed to the Sierra Nevada’s in California, a place I’ve never been, and from which I’ve never knowingly met someone. And, it’s for a cell phone.

Holding this book now, I picture the exact shelf where I found it in a used bookstore of a town where I lived in the 90s and haven’t lived since then. I love used bookstores. The musty smell, the ever-present cat peeking from the backroom, the shoulder-high piles of books overflows from crammed shelves, titles that wouldn’t now and never did make it to the front tables at Barnes and Noble. Used bookstores hardly exist anymore, not in places like New York, where I live—where sky-high rents look down laughingly upon handwritten discounts on the yellowed inside covers of used books. Not where time is short and ambition long, where even lazy Sunday afternoons aren’t so lazy—work week anxiety already building toward frenetic Mondays.

With this book, I’m also back in a cafe—down the block from the store where I found it—a cafe where I often read and would write on gray afternoons. Where the barista—he seemed to live there—spoke loud and smiled more than anyone around and steamed up latte foam with great care, and the place smelled of burnt coffee beans. The bookmark phone number’s owner, though, a blank face. It’s quite possible the number has changed. I might never know whose identity-in-digits I was compelled to jot down in too-light blue ink I would never use today.

Still, while the phantom Sierra Nevada’s are one thing, it being a cell number is perhaps the greater mystery. I bought the book several years before owning my own. Cell phones were less ubiquitous then. I knew a few people with them, though the number was steadily climbing. I was one of the obnoxious hold-outs against succumbing to that marker of the millennium who used to announce this fact in groups of people—to a collection of almost-audible eye-rolls.

It’s easy to forget a time before cell phones. Many people are glad to. A time when we memorized dozens of numbers at any given time. A time before we thumbed with lightning speed numbers onto a tiny screen—ever-after classified by name not number, a cute meme or photo pulled from Facebook.

I don’t have a single number—including my mother’s—at the ready anymore. Our phones die, and we enter a coma-like state, lying in wait to recharge and reboot and re-enter the world. A common question today: Where are you right now?

Not just where are you, but—in the way location defines us—who are you right now?

Cell phones don’t locate us in the same way landlines did. I lived for three years in a city that didn’t bear the area code my phone did. Back when landlines were the norm, the stability of our situation seemed to solidify who we were. We were often at home, and at home in ourselves. There was no screaming into a device over the whir and honk of cars while scurrying down city sidewalks, no opining to an Oz-like bluetooth voice in our compartments as we drove along, stop signs an afterthought. There was something comforting about being able to envision a person in the same place as you talked.

It was like walking in the door of a home you know well, even if you had never been. You knew the person you were talking to was there. You welcomed the caller into yours too—as you would sit on the sofa or bed or, yes, the toilet, or stand at the kitchen counter—where the phone itself had a home.

And you re-entered the part of yourself that was the same, and offered the same to everyone.

Traveling pre-cell phone was an altogether different experience. Before roaming was cheap or included-in-plan and every cafe in every place with one had wi-fi, we were only connected to where we were—present by necessity. No email every second, no checking the weather in Colorado while you were in Cambodia. No texting as fast as your thumbs could move, all the while vendors in a bustling Istanbul market scurrying for your attention with equal speed, to no avail. Now we can read a book on our phones.

A book has its own history. It can bring us back not just to the world within its pages, but to the world where we entered it.

As I stare back now at my shelves and I pick a few other books I haven’t opened in years, I can envision exactly where I was when I read the last luminous page—in the unmade bed of a bedroom long-since abandoned, on a Coney Island or Puerto Rican beach, an apartment I once shared during a relationship now over, on the F train in Manhattan, a mountaintop house in Grenada, a road trip passing through Mississippi. My brother gave a Kindle for Christmas one year. Six months later, I left it on a plane. I’ve never misplaced a book.

I suppose some would call me hopelessly old school to imagine things like landlines and bookstores with longing. Still, I’m as guilty as anyone of not living what I long for. It takes conscious effort to do today what not so long ago we had to do. To leave the phone face-down as we sit at a bar waiting for a companion to arrive—look around next time and notice the scarcity of faces not glowing in blue-light—or to stuff a few books in a suitcase for a trip instead of tucking an iPad under our arm at a fraction of the weight.

The irony I must admit is that it has been so long since I opened this book and found what’s been tucked patiently inside.

I guess that underscores the nostalgia I feel. That I’ve shuttled these books around, vaguely oblivious to their contents, speaks to where I’ve been—internally—and more, who I’ve been.

The same frenzied, money-conscious, time-strapped, middle-aged professional as so many of my peers, who can’t now realistically imagine life without email always at my fingertips. Who just re-arranged my books as I dusted before company came without, as usual, flipping them open—until one fell and out tumbled that bookmark.

It could have been any book. This one, with the mysterious cell number, catapults me to yet another place, to my tiny studio apartment in a former hotel in Baltimore, where I owned my last landline, where I sat next to a window on which an orange glass ashtray balanced next to the phone. I would plop down on a rickety wooden desk chair and light up a Marlboro—because then I still smoked—the moment I dialed or someone rang. I can smell the stale ashes I always let sit too long.

I think now with excitement and fascination about returning to those shelves, instead of binge-watching the latest Netflix series on my hand-held device. Who knows what histories lurk inside?