About a week before the fire, my coworker at the bookstore told me about the host of a knitting podcast she listens to. This host calls herself a “project knitter” because she does not possess of stash of yarn—she never buys more than her next project requires. My coworker relayed this information with disbelief and perhaps a trace of respect while I laughed. “I can’t imagine,” I said, and I really couldn’t. I’m weak in a yarn shop. I visualize all of the things I could create in every skein I see, and then I load up, not knowing when I’ll be back again. I tell myself I’ll find the time to knit it all, somehow.
I was the same way with books. Working as a bookseller for six years has toughened me up to impulse book-buying (mostly), but I still couldn’t help hoarding books. Especially freebies like ARCs, which I used to haul into my house by the dozen. I’d tell myself that if I didn’t get to them I could always re-home them, but I knew I’d be sad if I wanted to read a title later and couldn’t find a copy. My father built me floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that stretched the length of an entire wall, and was dismayed to find that I filled them within weeks. Stacks popped up everywhere, and I usually had a box to donate to local schools or libraries going at all times. There were moments when I’d trip over a tower in the middle of the night, or spend an hour searching for that one copy of something I was fairly certain I had, and I’d think, “I’ve gotta do something about all these books.” But I never did. The only book ownership limitations I believed in were those imposed by budget.
And then the fire happened.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that we barely escaped with our lives. In the immediate aftermath, I shut my brain off to the tremendous loss. I uttered the words, “We lost everything,” to so many people that I quickly realized the word everything is inadequate, too tiny encompass all that was now gone. So I started telling people that I got out with the clothes on my back and my phone, that I didn’t even have time to grab my glasses. Reality didn’t sink in slowly as much as it came in quick, painful flashes—my favorite jacket, my computer, my Scrabble board, the quilt my late grandmother made, all gone.
And my books.
The day after the fire, I returned to where my house used to stand, wearing contact lenses that brought the wreckage into painfully clear focus. The lawn was strewn with ash and charred rubbish, and the wind kicked up thousands of damp, fluttering pages. When my books burned, they didn’t succumb to ash. The fire ate their covers and liberated them from their binding, singed their corners, and turned the pages loose in the spring breeze. I could pick them up and still read most of the words. I gathered every page I could safely collect, and tried to identify which books they came from before I found that I couldn’t. I didn’t recognize any of the pages, and so I threw them all away.
When I think about my books, a personal library that was nearly two decades in the making, what pains me the most isn’t the loss of my signed copy of The Hunger Games or the worn copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that’s been my companion since I was eight. I don’t really think about the paperback of Rebecca that I never returned to my eighth-grade classroom, or my copy of Jellicoe Road, still marked with post-its from when I poured over it for my Master’s thesis. I return to the stacks sitting on the floor, unread. I still cringe when I think of the three books I had purchased just days before the fire, whose covers I hadn’t even cracked. I feel guilty about the stacks of borrowed books from my mother and friends. I struggle to visualize every single spine on my TBR shelf, but it’s difficult to recall those titles without having the experience of reading them to reinforce the memory. Each one of those unread books feels like a squandered opportunity, a door closed, a waste of money. If my library of read books was a snapshot of the stories and ideas that helped shape me, then my towering TBR stacks felt like guide for where I wanted to go next. Without them, I felt a little lost.
“Maybe I’ll become a project knitter,” I joked to my coworker a few days later, when I didn’t have any yarn to my name. But I was really thinking about my books. About why I bought them all, why I collected stories that I never had the chance to read, and why I hadn’t had much interest in reading a single book since the fire. I wondered if this experience would change the way I felt about unread books, turn me into one of those misers I encounter at the bookstore who puts things back on the shelf and says, “I have too many books at home already.”
I didn’t really have the time to find out, though. Within days, books began to arrive. Friends dropped them off, mystery packages from Amazon appeared. Gift certificates were sent, strangers offered me hefty discounts at used bookstores, and one bookstore handed me a large box and told me to fill it with ARCs from their breakroom.
Books will wait for you. That’s what I tell customers who always worry that they have too many unread books at home. Maybe that’s not always true, and if I could apologize to all of the unread books I lost, I would. I’d say, I’m sorry that the fire got to you before I did, but I’m still here.
Aside from a few treasured favorites, most of the books I now own I’ve never read. I have a library of TBR books, and it looks a little different from the stacks that were lost. As I set them on my new shelf in my temporary home, I found myself promising them, I’m going to read you this time. I don’t know if that will prove true, but I felt excitement flicker within me once everything was unpacked. I reached out, I picked up a book.
And I began to read again.