Standing in front of my bookshelf I gazed at the cracked spines squeezed together — the backs of the precious residents crammed into my overpopulated high rise — and took stock of all the browned pages I had lovingly turned and creased. Like that fantasy novel about the girl who was special for some reason and went off to live with a tribe of…wait, maybe I’m thinking of that contemporary fairy tale about the eldest sister, and I remember a brindled dog, but why? Oh, but here’s that book I loved because it was about books — I vividly recall the racy scene at the beginning, but what happened about the books and have I been calling it The Book Thief by accident?
It happens every time and, every time, I wait for the plots and characters and themes to come back to me like beloved lost pets that have found their way home again. I imagine that I’ll tell my touching story of girl who miraculously recovered a decades-long catalog of internalized book reports after cracking her coconut on the edge of a wood frame, with love from a boozy bender. A track from Riceboy Sleeps will slip into the background of the This American Life interview as I slyly recite my own SparkNotes rendition of every drama and comedy I read for the Shakespeare Abroad Program in which I immersed myself and earned stunning marks only to mix up all of the characters and confuse the stories very shortly after.
In reality the idea of public quizzing on books I’ve read fills me with terror. I shared a personal library with my older sister when we were children and if she ever suspected that I had tossed a book aside without reaching the end, she tested my knowledge. Hands on hips and scowling, I faced the challenge, desperate to defeat her at last. I never won. I found she could recall bits that had slipped me. Portions of my literary intelligence had bloomed from my head and gone to dandelion fluff, drifting out past the bunk bed, through the window, and into the night.
I’ve always wanted to be the person who can quote Voltaire but owl-eyed bafflement can’t disguise itself as cleverness. When friends approach me to analyze the minutiae in a book we both read, I punctuate the conversation with loud, alarming hoots meant to imitate the call of the knowing. Can I recall the banner of House Martell, you ask? Do I look like Podrick Payne? “OOAHA!” Eventually, my friends learn their lesson.
Now that I’m older, wiser, and riding wild toward senility, I’ve gained the sense and determination to improve my reading memory. I write book reports and take notes. I repeat names aloud as I go. I’m making eyes at the dusty index cards in my office drawer. And, once a day, I give myself a little tap on the head — a quick whistle — to call the books back home.