Jenny and I are spending the weekend in the country, enjoying the peace and quiet of a borrowed house surrounded by bare trees, piles of crunchy snow and the hoarse caws of ravens. We spend the evening listening to records on a turntable, playing casino, and reading books.
Jenny and I are both big readers; books are the shared love that first drew us together. I’m reading Michael Lewis’s new book on my Kindle, absorbed in a perspective on the birth of Israel that has overnight transformed my own (maybe I’ll write about that sometime). I have a half-finished paperback, A Short History of the United States in my backpack as well as a library book , Nutshell by Ian McEwan. I tend to travel with multiple books in multiple forms so I can shift gears with my moods. Even my favorite genre can become sticky and claustrophobic, like too many chocolates in a box.
Jenny’s reading several library books too and dipping into our absent host’s collection of cook books. She has always been a glutton for cookbooks. We have shelves of them at home and, on our weekly trip to the library, she inevitably hauls back more armfuls of heavily illustrated tomes from celebrity chefs. For me, cookbooks are a means to an end, cooking, but Jenny enjoys them for the vicarious pleasure, content to just rattle the pots in her mental kitchen.
We spent this Saturday morning on the Long Island Expressway instead of the library. That’s not the norm. Usually, we have a bagel from the baker on University Place, read the paper, then head to one of four public libraries in the ten-block radius of our house.
There’s the large Jefferson Market library with its stained glass windows and spiral staircase, a repurposed court-house with a red-brick tower. Or the compact Mulberry St. branch tucked into an alley by the Puck building. Chalky perfumes waft in from the Santa Maria Novella store next door, mingling with the excited murmurs of the kids from Chinatown playing computer games in the mezzanine and the exotic fragrances of the homeless men reading magazines. To the West, there’s the Hudson Park branch — we stop to read the chalkboard by the entrance. Some anonymous librarian always adds a witty welcome message: the first one we noticed was a celebration of grilled cheese and Lionel Richie, our favorites too. If we head East on our Saturday morning stroll, we end up at the Ottendorfer branch, formerly a 19th century clinic for German immigrants, its facade festooned with busts of Bavarian doctors. This branch is the smallest one, which shortens our visit but also produces the most book picks. I don’t know if it’s just especially well-curated, but we always come back with the biggest haul from the Ottendorfer.
We generally bring home 4-8 library books each week and stack them on a table at the end of the couch. Within a day or two, most of them have been thumbed and rejected. This culling is just the final pleasure of library gleaning, which begins with a visit to the new arrivals section of the library shelves. Jenny and I stand and browse side by side, reading spines, then examining covers and flyleaves, quietly passing good finds back and forth (“This looks like your sort of thing” “Read it last year”), amassing a stack on one of the library tables for further study. Then we read a page or two from each candidate, until we have separated the rejects from the chosen few. We check out the winners and stack them in our Trader Joe tote bags then head home to plunk down on the couch and further refine our search.
For the next few days, we dig deeper into each book, only occasionally making it to the very end. If dialogue sounds wooden, plotting forced, vocabulary opaque, then the book gets banished back to the TJ bag sitting beneath the end table. On rare occasion, one of us loves a book so much, we must go online to renew it so the other can get his/her fill of it too.
We can afford to be picky. New books are being published every day, the library shelves are groaning, and we have many pages to turn before we sleep.
Speaking of, I’m heading to the couch to read. And snooze.