Who the hell is Marilyn Miller?
I haven’t the foggiest.
It’s her name, however, that is scrawled on the title page of Junichiro Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles, an old Japanese novel (in translation) that I picked up at a used book shop here in Phnom Penh.
This edition of the text was published in 1968. This was pre-Scott, possibly even pre-Pauly Shore, though I’d have to check on that one. My parents were twenty. George Lucas was figuring out if his award-winning student films meant that he had some kind of a career as a filmmaker. Vietnam was heating up, and Cambodia was in the beginning stages of being torn apart. A long time ago.
And there was Marilyn. Alone at her desk, perhaps, or riding a bus, or waiting for the chicken to cook. Japanese literature was not that popular in the west thirty-five years ago; she must have been literate, educated, possibly even a teacher. Perhaps she had been to Japan. She might even have spoken Japanese herself, though that, too, is somewhat unlikely.
I love finding books with inscriptions on them from real, ordinary, sloppy and wonderful human beings. I bought a book awhile back by C.S.Lewis about religion, his favorite topic, and there was an inscription on the cover page, and I googled the name and lo and behold, the bearer of that name was a preacher out in Utah. (I felt like emailing her, to tell her that I have a copy of a book that she read in the mid 1970’s. Could be fun. But I worried that she might try to convert me, and so I resisted the urge. (And, come to think of it, this was the same bookshop where I picked up my other-inscribed book, too. Perhaps there are entire bookshops devoted simply to books that have hand-written inscriptions on their cover pages. I could spend days in a bookshop like that, reading the messages, imagining their lives. Not just days – I could spend my whole life in a shop like that.)
I’m not sure why pen-and-ink inscriptions from ordinary folk hold such a strange spell over me. Perhaps it’s because books are so personal; for a brief period of time, but an honest period of time, are thoughts merge with the author’s. We become literary hermaphrodites, for lack of a better word. We write our name, usually in pen, sometimes in pencil, on the front page of a book, and it does…something. Something solid. What, I don’t know. But it makes us feel part of something solid and real and concrete.
It’s the same reason we inscribe books to others, to put down in print our love and our friendship and our goodwill. Recommending a book to someone, inscribing a book to someone, implies that we have considered the contours of another’s mental landscape, and judged that this book will somehow find a home on that psychic plane. Which is why it’s somewhat sad to find an old book in a bookshop bearing an inscription – a birthday gift, or a Christmas one, or a graduation present. The receiver has read the book, presumably, then sold it. Nothing wrong with that. I guess. But does the givee realize this is what happened? That something chosen with, if not love, at least attention, was, at some future point in time, discarded, traded for cash?
Stupid thoughts. I know. But still. We can only be in one place at one time, but the books we’ve read, the books we’ve taken in the taxi and on the boat and inside the detention hall, they can travel. They can glide. Almost forty years ago a woman named Marilyn Miller bought a book, and forty years later, I hold it in my hands. I smell it. It retains its power. That means something. I don’t know what, but it does. I feel this to be true, and I believe it.
Is she still alive, this Marilyn?
I hope she's out there.
I hope she’s had a good life. There may have been heartache: lost loves, broken children, cancer. I suppose that’s inevitable. She may still be alive, somewhere in the American Midwest, or in a retirement home in Newfoundland, or on a cattle farm in western Australia. Even as I write these words, she could be watching television, cooking dinner, arguing with her second husband, who she doesn’t love as much as the first, no, but he is better in bed, she’ll give him that much (grudgingly). She may even be beginning to read another book, and she might even be writing her name in the same clean, legible script on the title page.
And who knows?
That very same book could somehow end up in my hands one day.
Or in yours.