The Books They Gave Me

In which we reflect on books given us by loved ones.

Christensen.

It’s your birthday, some eight months since we first got to know each other. I posted a Personals ad on Craigslist, and you responded, and your love for poetry, in particular an obscure Danish poet impressed me greatly. Needless to say, I’ve had the hugest crush on you since then. You mentioned that you would one day like to own your own copies of all her books, and so I got you a copy of ‘It’. 

I didn’t read poetry until I met you. You made poetry approachable and accessible to me, and this has been a life-changing eight months. In these eight months I (tried to) read what you like, and discovered some favourites of my own. I still don’t get Inger Christensen as I duly noted in in the book I got for you; I vandalized your present with copious marginalia using Post-Its. I’ve left pieces of me in a book for you, so that in time to come, you will always have a reminder of me in something you love. It’s my cunning move. 

Sparks.

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Once upon a time I thought I might be gay. That was okay, my friends were pretty cool with me being a potential lesbian and a lot angry and hung out with me to boy-watch and squealed in my ears about cute boys anyway.

Then one night I met you. You gorgeous pale little shit. I fell a little in love with you the moment I saw you. And then I proceeded to act all stupid and manly around you because I thought you might be gay and I basically hated your guts because I thought you weren’t manly enough. 

Then one day one of my friends pointed out that you were actually kind of cute. And that smart was the new sexy. And I saw that they were kind of right, if you squinted, and I had to admit to myself that I actually liked you. A lot. You were kind of a pretty guy, if kinda dorky. But you were alright.

And then one Christmas there was a gift exchange thing going on and my code name was that I wanted a book. Literally, “I want a book.” And then I got this book. From you. What the fuck. Wow.

I wish you’d given me something like Eragon or that stuff you used to read yourself, not something you thought I might’ve liked. Maybe a Harry Potter book, I would’ve loved that. Or a Mythology book, even. I guess I should’ve been honest and said “Egyptology!” instead of just saying “Whatever.”

But as much as I came to hate Sparks’s guts and his sappy formulaic writing, I still have the card you wrote that came with the book. And I’m still kind of in love with you, you dork. You probably shouldn’t have hugged me that one time because I’m still not over that. Whoops.

Coelho.

You told me you were leaving on a late summer afternoon. I said I was happy for you, and I was - it was something you felt you needed to do, and I didn’t disagree. Still, some part of me imagined you asking me to go away with you, and imagined me saying I would…a silly thought, I knew then and still know now, but sometimes we have silly thoughts even though we know we shouldn’t. You knew this better than anyone.

I thought long and hard about how to say goodbye to you, even though I didn’t think it would really be goodbye. In the end, I bought you this book. I was going to give you my own beloved, dog-eared copy, but every time I read it, it speaks to me differently. I wanted you to find your own meaning in it, and not get caught up in the passages I’d marked. And, secretly, I was afraid you wouldn’t find as much meaning or reassurance in it as I had - that you wouldn’t appreciate it. Despite everything, sometimes I still felt as if I didn’t know you at all.

When I finally handed it to you, I was afraid it was too sentimental, that you would read it the wrong way. I re-read it myself, that night, and I realized there was no wrong way for you to read it…that made me feel better, as this book always does.

I haven’t really heard from you since you left. I miss you more than I thought I would, and I’m more hurt by it than I thought I’d be. I want to ask you if you read it, if you liked it, if it burrowed under your skin and into your heart like it did mine. But instead, I say nothing, and quietly hope that the universe has conspired to help you find your treasure.

McInerney.

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In August 2010 I was starting my senior year of art school. In many ways I was the “it girl” of that whole scene- the life of the party, the drugs, the drinking, the drama, the many men, but I also always maintained my dominant love for my art of writing. Despite binge drinking 5 nights a week and pulling all nighters for absurdly named classes, I ate books whole. I’ve always been consumed with everything from Bukowski and Keruoac to Camus and Hesse.

I was heavily into my Hemingway phase when I ran into an acquaintance, M, on the street one day. We had shared classes and joints at random parties over the years but we had never actually spent time alone. We somehow ended up skipping class to smoke bongs in my apartment and instantly bonded over every shared and disputed interests. He made fun of my hippie taste and I called him a hipster- we became inseparable after that, I don’t think he spent a single night in his own bed.

M was interesting and quirky- he had a thousand pearly white teeth and a ridiculous taste in music. The main thing I remember most about our time together was laughter and exploration. He opened my eyes to new authors, crazy indie films, and subsequently, heroin. We didn’t turn into two junkies- at the risk of sounding delusional and in denial, we were creating our own little world together of happiness consisting of art and literature, my love of music and his love of baseball, and our newfound friend in dope. We never injected anything- rather we’d lay in my bed writing poetry, drinking beers, and sniffing lines. I always felt warm with Mike, like I was home.

As the year wore down we were faced the inevitable truth that I would soon be moving back home to New York, something we never discussed, it simply wasn’t our style. I went to M’s parents house in Delaware for his graduation party- his family loved me as much as he did, although no one knew our secret.

It was then that he gave me his copy of “Story of My Life”- I read it in two hours. It was the story of a jaded, sexually explorative, party girl looking for love in all the wrong places; it was no War and Peace. The book itself was shallow and the main character was a coked out, female version of Holden Caulfield but yet it rang true for me. In the gifting of this one seemingly ridiculous book, I realized that Mike understood me better than most people. He looked for no reasoning, demanded no explanations.

I don’t remember our last encounter- I moved back to NY that summer and although M and I continued to speak and share ideas daily, in my heart I knew I’d never see him again. It was time to grow up. I’d hear from M every few months or so- he was working on a film in Texas or flying out to California. I received a Facebook message from him one day asking about my current relationship status, I told him I was married now and a few months pregnant. While he expressed genuine happiness for me (he truly was a kind hearted person) he also let me know that he still loved me, that he wished it was him. When my daughter was born in December 2012 M sent me a beautiful message and well wishes which lead me to the dreadful act of Facebook stalking. I didn’t even recognize M in his pictures- he was covered in tattoos now, hanging out with a heavy punk crowd and had a girlfriend who had gotten divorced a month earlier. A part of me was sad to see the old M that I knew and loved had changed so much but I guess he could’ve said the same about me; my pictures were now of an infant and family life.

On April 1st, 2013 I found out that M had killed himself early that morning. I sat on my couch in my beautiful little home with my baby daughter napping in the next room and sobbed for hours. I pondered all the questions you have when anyone takes their own life, I pored through photographs of us from our graduation night and Phillies games, I replayed our last conversation over and over again in my mind. I re-read the book that M had given me, it had a completely different meaning and effect on me this time but it still evoked the notion that ironically M was one of the big pushes I needed to change my life. Underneath the partying and bad decisions, M brought out the best in me. Like the main character in the story, he saw through my bullshit and into my heart; I will forever remember him as the guy that gave me the story of my life.

Dickinson.

I still remember that summer. Even at 7 I was already an avid reader and had built myself a sanctuary in the trees, my only connection with the world outside a basket and a rope over a limb that I used to raise and lower my books for the day. You came to me and handed me this little frail book, the plastic on the outside crackling slightly like secret whispers from the enigmatic girl on the cover. You asked if I knew the first poem, one called “Success.” I said no. You told me to read it, and I read it and every other poem in the book. A week later, you came to me again and asked if I knew it. I said I read it, and you told me that I didn’t know it yet. So I took another week and memorized it. You came back and asked if I knew it. I stood with my hands gripping the book and recited it, every line. You told me I still didn’t know it. So I took another week. And another. I read it again, I really read it. I felt it, I understood it. It blew my mind, and I have never looked at the written word the same way. After that summer, every book is a new world that maybe I don’t want to live in, but I can respect. Every poem a piece of someone’s soul, and I admire the person that was brave enough to tear themselves to pieces and hide them in books for some future lover.

You don’t read poetry anymore. You don’t tell me you love me anymore. You sit in your house with your drugs and your demons and convince yourself that it’s the fault of everyone you know except yourself. I hold this book close to me now that you are a shadow of what you once were, and remind myself that no matter how lost you are, you were once strong and wild and magnificent and my hero. I wish I still had you here. It hurts to think that my nieces and nephews, my someday-children will not have a grandfather, that they will inherit the burden of a raging boogeyman disguised as a pitiful broken man instead of the brilliant and caring person I had the privilege of knowing. But they will have this book, and this poem, and I will be there to pass on the lessons of your life. I will be there to ask the important questions.

Cohen.

When I was little, my mom would tease me each year by telling me she was getting me a book for my birthday. It’s not that I didn’t like books, we just had so many – more than I could ever read – and while I had my favorites, a few well-read books, worn out, their jackets long lost and pages scotch taped in a quick fix, I never considered a new book something special.

I invited him to my 19th birthday party after just a few dates into our relationship. We weren’t even serious – he had big plans to move to another country and I was coming out of my first long relationship. But his was a very romantic, old-fashioned kind of courtship – very different from all the other men I knew. He sent me poems, not his own, but lyrics of his favorite Leonard Cohen songs, which I never heard before but was really beginning to love, thanks to him. I just got my fist Cohen CD, and was raving about the beauty of his poetry, wishing I knew more. For my birthday he didn’t get me anything – instead, he gave me his own copy of Stranger Music, Cohen’s collected poems. His old, worn out, missing a dust jacket copy, a book I knew he loved, which made the present that much more special.  It was the sweetest and one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever received.  A couple of years later, at our wedding, he laughed that he only gave it to me because he knew he was getting it back – and true enough, two kids and many years later, it’s still sitting on our bookshelf.

I found myself returning to that book many times throughout the years. I still love Leonard Cohen and read his poems for their wisdom and sad beauty. And while we may have nothing left in common with the two romantic kids we used to be, I still treasure the man who gave me this book.