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The Books I Didn’t Read Saved Me

Dana Staves

Staff Writer

Going through life with an apron tied on and a pen in her hand, Dana Staves writes about books and food. She also writes a little fiction. She lives in Maryland with her wife, their son, and their cat.

In the summer of 2010, I had just graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing. I quickly learned that most businesses were decidedly not gunning to hire creative writers, and I searched hard for a job – any job – before my student loan repayment kicked in. I was lucky to find a position as an administrative assistant at a law firm-meets-collections agency. And though the work was easy, and I was in charge of the mail, which I found oddly exciting, that job wore on me, and in the end, I relied on books – those I had read, and those I might never read – to save me.

It’s an odd pairing, being an artist and working at a collections agency. The fiction writer in me mined the opportunity to comb through filing cabinets filled with the most wonderful names I had encountered – names that haunted the recurring dreams I had about messy, disorganized filing cabinets. I swooned over the pure poetry I found in reports from process servers – descriptions of abandoned houses, of people who had seemingly disappeared, of overgrown yards and rusted lawn furniture. But those literary gems weren’t enough to hold me. I had employment, a way to fund my writing, but the problem was, by the time I got home in the evening, I had nothing left to give to writing. I despaired. I felt guilty for not liking my job more. And I worried over my future as a writer.

We were given 30 minutes for lunch each day, but I usually ate my lunch at my desk, working while I ate, so that I could use my break to go to the Barnes & Noble right down the street.

I didn’t make much and was living paycheck to paycheck. Once my student loan repayment started, things got even tighter. So when I went to Barnes & Noble, I wasn’t buying books; I was just surrounding myself with them. I would walk the aisles, running my fingers over spines of books, idly reading first pages when it suited me. I browsed sections I usually didn’t wander into – history, self-help, sci-fi, poetry.

It wasn’t about reading the books – though God knows, the books I was reading at that time were more valuable to me than ever – but it was about being in the presence of books, of words, of the work I wanted so badly to do.

Around this time, I had a meeting with a former professor of mine. I was considering applying to PhD programs, a way of pulling the parachute cord to get me out of my life. We met at a bar and ate fried pickles and drank beer. And I poured out my story of professional woe and frustration. She told me that when she finished grad school, she was working some clerical job in New York, the kind I had, the kind you don’t particularly like but feel obligated to be grateful for because at least it pays the rent and keeps you fed. And every other Friday, pay day, when she got off work, she went directly to the record store. Music did for her what books did for me; it reminded us we weren’t lost.

My wife once told me that, when she’s out to sea on Navy duty, birds are a sign that land is near. Books were my birds. They were my sign that I wasn’t so very far from solid ground.

Barnes & Noble is a big store with more titles than I could possibly read. But reading wasn’t the point. Not really. It was the experience of being with books. With so many words, neatly stacked on shelves, all around me – no filing cabinets, no warrants to stamp – I was home. The books, the ones I didn’t even read, saved me, just by being there, just by being books.