The Stories Library Books Tell

I am stricken by awe by the dog-eared page between pages 104 and 105 of A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. I got the book from the library — my newfound pledge to catch up with books I’ve bought before I buy any new ones led me to this, plus the fact that I was there for Guys Read anyway, and had a coupon for a free “Bestseller Express” checkout because I donated money to the library at the neighborhood Christmas party (their mission was to buy more puppets, which I heartily and financially endorsed — the coupon was my token of thanks). I’d heard so much about The Kite Runner, I decided I’d give this book a go. I had to make it a priority, given the 10-day rentals for new releases, and have spent the last couple of days lulled into its secret world of young Afghan women, Mariam and Laila. It’s a lovely book, lucidly describing a world so unknown to me, and it’s a remarkable achievement for a writer to connect a liberal, educated American man to naive, burqa-clad Muslim women as if they were natural allies.

On page 104, a nine year old child is surprised by a young man wielding a pistol. On page 105… well, never mind that. What matters is that someone chose that spot to dog-ear the page and take a break from the book. Whatever their reason, I am astonished. How could they not press on and find out what happened to Laila?

And this is the pleasure of library books I’d forgotten (even though it’s a theme of my next novel)… the way you retrace the steps of previous readers, and see signs of their reading. The shocking book-marring bookmark on page 105. The smear (chocolate? coffee?) a few pages later. I definitely think that one of the pleasures of reading is a shared experience — which is why the Harry Potter books have been the greatest reading experience of the past decade, even if they weren’t my favorite books. It’s amazing to read the same book at the same time as millions of other people. It’s like you’re all cuddled up together listening to a bedtime story.

Library books make that sharing more visible, as well as transcending time. As a child, I liked looking at the check-out cards — which they used then — to see who the last person was who read that book. I marveled that a book might go 10 or 20 years without being read, to be plucked up again by me. It made me wonder at the timeless power of books, that they could wait patiently for decades for a single other reader to come along. The new stamp and scan system deprives us of knowing the last reader of a book, or future readers of knowing our names. I find this a little bit sad, but there are still those dog-ears and chocolate smears that give a well-read book more character than an unread one.

I’d like to meet the past reader of this volume, and ask just WHAT was so important that he or she had to set the book aside before they found out what happened to Laila… and ask them if they were compelled to care for these strange creatures as much as I did. I might also hint around that I wouldn’t mind a spoiler or two.

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