At home in books

Friends — Just now I lit the Yahrzeit candle for my mother, Barbé Hammer, who died 23 years ago. Right before that, though, I read Neil Aitken’s extraordinary essay on personal libraries as sites of resistance.* The book collection, he observes, can become a home for people who are transnational and interlingual and more. The library can become a sanctuary for people who experience themselves as not fitting into a culture, ethnicity, language, literary canon, gender, or religion. One of these or all of them.

I connect with this understanding of books, particularly because — although I am white and privileged — I have a fraught relationship with the experience of home. I have often felt like an outsider in social groups and situations and I feel at home very seldom. I do not, for example, feel at home where I live now.

But when I think about my books, a feeling of peace steals over me.

Books played a very special role in my relationship with my mother. I am a reader because she herself taught me — with great impatience — to read. She was, to be blunt, a terrible teacher (she admitted as much), and this experience may have played a part in my own decision to teach literature and writing.

But my mother was also an incredibly generous gift giver and one of the many ways she gifted me was with books. Mountains of them, in fact. My mother bought me books, sure, but she also brought them home on a regular basis. You see, she worked as a secretary for Random House, and as a result, in our small apartment, we were surrounded by books. At times we were drowning in them. We read and read. We read Interview with the Vampire as a galley, we read The Chocolate Wars, Ira Levin’s futurist This Perfect Day, and the unforgettable I know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Right before she died. my mother sent me Gish Jen’s short story collection Who’s Irish.? “I think you’d like this,” a note from her reads. We bonded at Bloomingdale’s certainly, but I think our deeper bond was forged talking about books. I remember she related to me the entirety of The Once and Future King, after we saw the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone. We talked about Shakespeare and Aeschylus, and Toni Morrison, whom I met at Random House while she was still an editor. “What are you reading?” and “Is it good?” were the questions she eternally asked my husband when he joined our family.

After reading Neil’s essay, I look up on my bookshelf and see my mother’s Modern Library volumes of the Ancient Greek Tragedies, which have travelled with me from New York, to North Carolina, to California, to Washington State. Neil is right. For some of us, books are the bricks and mortar, the very foundation that grounds us in a shifting, uncertain world, where we feel we do not belong, where our place feels insecure and uncertain.

I feel gratitude to my mother for the home of books, and now when I look around me, I see authors whom I know personally and love dearly. They’re on my bookshelves. My library has become, not just a domicile, but is indeed part of my family.

I had packed up some books to give away. But reading Neil’s piece, I am going to take them out of the boxes and put them back on the shelves. I’m so lucky to have them. Perhaps if I open one, my mother’s voice will whisper through the leafed pages, asking “What are you reading? Is it good?”

Neil Aitken, How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Writing Discourse, 2nd Edition (Modern History Press, 2022), edited by Sherry Quan Lee

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