the half-closed box

by Megan Abbott

vc andrews

sketch by v.c. andrews (via simon & schuster)

Recently, I did something I probably haven’t done since I first signed up for Facebook: I actually looked at my profile. I’m guessing it was about two years old and the list of books I’d cited as my favorites so surprised me. Not because I don’t love all those books still but many of them seemed so remote to me now.

It struck me how “favorite books” are frequently a snapshot of yourself at a particular moment. Oh, right, that was when all I wanted to read about were gangsters and heists gone wrong. Or, Oh, yes, it had to be obscure British crime novels from just before the war. Or, ah, only stories about the struggles for meaning in midwestern towns.

Just returning now from a bookstore, scouring the shelves searching for compulsive airplane reading for an upcoming trip, I thought about this all some more. How returning to past books we loved are like tunnels into old selves, or parts of our selves that may be neglected (sometimes rightly so) or dormant, that may be gone forever. And sometimes, by returning to these books, we can return to those selves.

For instance, when I first fled–catapulted?–myself from the Michigan suburbs to move to my dream town, New York City, all I wanted to read was tales of suburban malaise–Rick Moody’s Ice Storm, A.M. Homes, Revolutionary Road. Now, more than 15 years free from the grosgrained handcuffs of my hometown ‘burb, Grosse Pointe, I no longer feel such a burning need to burn down that particular house.

Grosse Pointe

(My new book, The End of Everything, is my first set in the suburbs–one much like Grosse Pointe–and writing it let me recapture some of the magic and longing that had been there all along, but I had missed, or forgotten.)

Walking the aisles, I wondered about the me, age 27, who tore through Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, all 15,000 pages of it, and was enraptured. Often, I pull that book off the shelf and want to dip back in but something in me worries I couldn’t find myself in it, like wandering through an abandoned house.

But maybe I could. Two years ago, Sara and I wrote a piece about V.C. Andrews for The Believer, and returning to her dark, epicly perverse world after so many years, I could find pieces of myself spring back into place in alarming and exciting ways.

enchanted-castleThen, a few days ago, I saw some writer mention Edith Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle as a favorite book as a child. Now that I think of it, it’s like the gilt-edged, proper sister to Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews’ gothic tale of a pair of brothers and sisters locked in the family attic. Here’s Gore Vidal on the book:

There are those who consider The Enchanted Castle Nesbit’s best book. J. B.Priestley has made a good case for it, and there is something strange about the book which sets it off from the bright world of the early stories. Four children encounter magic in the gardens of a great deserted house. The mood is midnight. Statues of dinosaurs come alive in the moonlight, the gods of Olympus hold a revel, Pan’s song is heard. Then things go inexplicably wrong. The children decide to give a play. Wanting an audience, they create a number of creatures out of old clothes, pillows, brooms, umbrellas. To their horror, as the curtain falls, there is a ghastly applause. The creatures have come alive… Thwarted, they turn ugly. Finally, they are locked in a back room … It is the sort of nightmare that might have occurred to a highstrung child, perhaps to Nesbit herself.

Truthfully, I didn’t even know I remembered the book until suddenly I did. Like opening an old box (a locked room) and finding a childhood toy that was once your whole world and it slipped entirely from you. It made me want to read it again, with an awful longing.

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14 Comments to “the half-closed box”

  1. I had a similar experience this past summer when I visited my folks house and sifted through all my high school books and decided which would go to the Kiwanis auction or not. I could remember buying them–some at Borders, some at thrift stores, and even some at Kiwanis–with the sincere intent that I WOULD read them because, at that moment, I needed to. Around high school, for instance, I felt the need to read (part of) every English translation of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. So I had a bunch of those, even the ones that I thought were inferior. Now, I’m content to keep the battered, taped-together copy I stole from my brother. I don’t need 6 copies of the book.

  2. Oh my gosh, that’s a whole interesting topic too–how many multiple copies of certain books I have–I can’t stop buying them! e.g., Sound and the Fury, Tender is the Night and almost any Raymond Chandler!

  3. Oh, I have so many chandlers I finally bought the library of america complete set so I couldn’t buy them anymore! I am trying to clean house today and I haven’t even touched the books–still struggling with ten-yr old yoga pants that might be good yet! yes, those books are tunnels to old places, aren’t they? Especially kids books. A while back I saw my niece reading this Emily Post book from 1950-something from my mother’s collection that I always loved and it brought back a flood of memories. BTW the joy of weird nonfiction books is a whole other topic, isn’t it?

  4. When I was 13-ish I was buying every paperback copy of The Bridge on the River Kwai that i could find, hoping to find one where the swears weren’t asterisked-out! I stopped at a half dozen or so. All had asterisks, so I gave up.

  5. When I’m browsing in a second-hand bookshop and come across a copy of a book I loved, I find it really difficult not to buy it. It seems somehow disloyal to leave it languishing there on the shelves beside so many unworthy books – we had such great times together, it and I! Often, I can’t resist the temptation, even though I really don’t have enough shelf space to hold too many multiple copies, and that’s how many of my friends ended up with some of (what I hope are) their new favourite books.

    • It’s the covers that get to me! I bought the Library of America Chandler but it never stopped me if I saw a good cover. And sometimes it’s just so darn exciting to find a favorite book in an obscure locale–as you say, Diarmid, you don’t want to leave it stranded there to gather dust!

      Sara, ooh, which Emily Post?

  6. When I was a teenager, I stole one copy of every Ross MacDonald Bantam Mystery in my local Waldenbooks. I’m a much better person now, but I can see them all up there on my bookshelf as I type this. They traveled west with me, the pages yellowed now, the spines brittle. Lew Archer was a great time of reading for me. Old friends.

  7. OK, quick quiz–how many of you have to double-stack your books? How many keep a favorite books section that is independent of any other type of organization (subject matter, author, etc.)? How many have a special bookcase immediately adjacent to their bed? How many have a bookcase in their bathroom? How many have bookcases in the garage??

    C’mon, raise your hands!

  8. Well, Don, NYC-dwellers are special cases–no garage and a bathroom I can’t even fit my towels in (literally!), but double-stacking, for sure! Do you have a favorite books section? What’s in it?

  9. megan, I don’t know the title of the emily post–maybe just “etiquette?” Did you love those too? Why did we grow up in the 40s when we were actually born in the 70s? Book storage, ha, a topic for its own blog! I have some special categories for various research projects–generally stacks on the floor– for example criminology, yoga, old new york. Then I keep my pretty vintage books separate because I like to look at them. Then in a storage space out back I have two big sections, fiction-non. Everything else is in General Population.

    Don’t feel too bar, Russell–better than not reading them at all, right?

    • Damn right. Those were the only books I’ve ever stolen (other than a collection of Victorian erotica around the same time). I was a poor teenager, a product of single motherhood. Our library didn’t ever have more than one or three Archer books around when I needed to move on in the series. Once I’d started stealing them, it was a matter of pride to carry on until I’d assembled the whole deadly package. It wasn’t easy, I can tell you that, but I stuck with it.

      I live in a good-sized 1930′s Montana bungalow these days. All my books are currently on shelves in my living room or study or in my basement TV cave — along with my beloved movie collection. The best stuff, the first editions and latest favorites (Megan’s and Josh’s are in there), are stored in a beautiful newer Stickley dark oak, glass-fronted bookcase in the living room. That’s where the new Gran book will reside.

  10. “Books I’m glad I stole” might make a decent blog, too.

    I’m not proud of it, but I’m pretty glad I stole a four-volume set of George Orwell’s essays from my high school library when I was sixteen. No one had checked them out in years, and it didn’t seem like they’d be missed. I read them again and again for the next decade or so, and I still bring them out when I’m not sure what to read. (But I can’t help but feel bad when I think about the kids who followed me through school who might have benefited from George’s guidance but never did. Oh, the guilt!)

  11. Megan, they need to make a bunch o’movies outta your books so you can get a garage! THE best place to have a big ol’ stack o’ bookcases…great big easy chair in a cobwebbed corner where you can wake up in the wee hours and think you’ve landed in hell before you remember that you’re just in your garage. Another obligatory touch: a single, bare light bulb.

    I’ve had to redistribute the “favorite books” section across a series of single shelves in several rooms. Can’t remember which of those that it’s on, but one title that’s there somewhere is an odd little one called THE STREET WAS MINE…
    Chandler and Hammett are in the upstairs bathroom; Goodis, Thompson and Willeford are downstairs. For some reason my bathroom towels keep turning up missing…I think the culprit is Horace McCoy.

    Plus my car is a traveling library. Stuff comes and goes back and forth to my girlfriend’s, boxfuls at a time up and down the Coast Highway. She’s much worse than I am–her cases are TRIPLE-stacked…

  12. Horace McCoy in the bathroom, that’s asking for trouble! I worked in bookstores for many years, and the book thieves that really cause trouble aren’t those stealing one or two titles to read–those people are shockingly rare. The real problem is professional thieves who steal whole shelves/tables of books to resell.

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