As far as I can figure out, the only real reason to read anything that anybody's ever written is to either a) learn something new about the human condition that you've never quite conceived of before in exactly those terms, or b) nod your head in recognition at a finely-tuned observation, one that you've long held for yourself, but that you never suspected others, too, might find valuable, even precious.
Here's a paragraph from presidential historian Doris Kearn Goodwin's memoir WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR, a coming-of-age story combining her bittersweet memories of both baseball and a Brooklyn youth:
...The Rockville Centre Public Library became one of my favorite buildings in town. When my mother weasn't feeling well, she would send me to the library with titles of books she wanted to read. Since I now had a card of my own, I took great pride in checking out her books as well as mine. In those days, each book had a sheet glued to the last page on which the librarian stamped the due tate and cardholder's number. It was possible to count how many others had read the same book. I liked the thought that the book I was now holding had been held by dozens of others; it made me sad for both the author and the book when I discovered that I was the only one to take a particular volume off a shelf for months or even years...
I've never been to Rockville Centre Public Library, of course, but I may as well have, for I, too, used to greedily scan that final sheet of paper glued to a book's lonely last page in my high school library at Laura Secord Secondary School. I could see into the past via that card's (usually) lonely list. I, like Ms.Goodwin, also felt a little bad for the author and book, but I was more interested in those that had read it, who'd held it, who'd sniffed its small spine and drunk in its great musk. (If you don't sniff books upon reading, frequently and with no shame, you're not a real reader to me. "You're dead to me, Fredo," as Michael Corleone tells his brother in THE GODFATHER PART II. Fine, I'm not that intense about it, but still: You should snort books. I used to believe that Country Time Lemonade was the nectar of the gods, but I think the smell of books, either brand new or quite old, comes close.) Names of students I'd never meet, now middle-aged men, were still right there in red ink, forever fourteen. Once, I even stumbled upon the name of a family friend who had attended my school in the early years of the Seventies. There he was! Just a kid, like me! He had held this same book in his hands, checked it out, thumbed through it on the bus before I had even been born. Years later, at age seven, upon learning that I, too, played the clarinet, as he did, he would give me a private lesson in my backyard. Years later, at age fourteen, I would flutter the pages of a book he had held in his youth. And in those ensuing decades, only five, six people had taken out this book. It had sat there, miserable.
Where were they, I wondered? Those kids, just like me, who had checked out this same tome? Did they make it intact into adulthood? Had some of them been lost in car crashes, or had they flunked out of school? (I couldn't decide which was a scarier fate.) Were they happy? Did they still read? I imagined choosing a name at random, looking them up in the phone book, giving them a ring:
"Hi, you don't know me, but I'm a student at Laura Secord, just as you once were, and I happened upon a copy of (INSERT TITLE HERE), and the flap at the back states that you checked this book out on February 21, 1974, and I'm wondering: Do you remember this book? Do you remember this school? Are you happy with your life?"
I never made such a call, of course. Didn't have the balls. What a weirdo, they'd think.
But I still think about all of those books that I checked out of that library's narrow walls. Are they still there, rimrod straight at attention, with that sheet of small white glued so tightly in back? Is my adolescent scrawl still quite clear? Does any teenager pick up a book I once read, look at the back, even fleetingly, and wonder why, in the early nineties, I, a mere name on a list, wanted to give that ragged paperback book a fair chance? Does he or she wonder where I, a complete stranger, am in my life, and if they, too, will make it that far?