A love-song to libraries that inspired fantastic travels of the mind

in Fiction by

My debut book, Please Do Not Remove (Wind Ridge Books 2014), is an anthology of prose and poetry inspired by old library check out cards. The book’s premise began as a compulsion akin to Maggie Nelson’s attraction to blue, of which she writes in Bluets, “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color… It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it become somehow personal.”

I was perusing etsy.com at midnight, looking for a Secret Santa gift for a fellow writer, when my obsession began. I wanted to impress my friend, and a gift card to my favorite indie book shop would not suffice. In this effort to prove myself a supposed creative individual in twenty-five dollars or less, I stumbled upon a treasure trove of upcycled artisan products, as I like to call them.

Essentially, they were prettily designed articles made from vintage detritus, reinvented for new purposes, salvaged and remade. I found old typewriter keys that had been transformed into cufflinks, rings, and earrings. I perused colorful baskets and zippered coin purses made from crisscrossed newspaper cuttings and magazines from the 1950s. Strings of Dewey decimal codes cropped from cardstock were reborn as jewelry, screen printed onto T-shirts and transformed into wall hangings. I envisioned myself bedecked in the Dewey decimal codes for every one of Anne Tyler’s books, a walking homage to Henry James, the basis for a first-rate Halloween costume, the envy of all my literary friends.

pdnr picAs I scrolled and clicked, my intrigue grew, and I discovered related items available for sale: blank library cards, folio dividers, card catalog ephemera. Like Nelson and her blues, I felt an appreciation, an affinity for these things. Then I came to a set of 10 old library due date cards. Ten cards, from ten different books, replete with stamped check out dates spanning nine decades and the hand-written names of library patrons. They were a marvel. I was transported, in the glow of my laptop, to vivid and specific memories of the various libraries I’d spent time in as a young reader and then, later, as an adult: the DeMotte Public Library in Indiana, where in the 1990s I’d borrowed every V.C. Andrews book in existence and later the first dozen books Oprah officially endorsed, Chris Bohjalian’s Midwives among them; the Kurt Vonnegut Library, where I’d seen signed first editions of some of his books and bent over his typewriter, hovering my hand over the worn a s d f keys; and the Library of Congress, which in 2008 launch an exhibit of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, where I’d walked circles around his Darwin and Aristotle volumes, stilled and stunned by them.

Just like that, the cards became somehow personal. They were an access point to early memories, a nostalgic vessel that allowed me to recapture the magical feeling I’d had when first discovering books on my own, without parental or educational direction, without required reading assignments, and without aim, lost to them entirely, out of my mind with that feeling I could only get through reading. It was the same feeling that I seek to replicate with every new book read. It gets harder to do with age, I’ve found. And these cards were fairy dust.

When the cards arrived in the mail, their three-dimensional appeal further incited my interest. They felt like that past; they looked like the past; they even smelled like the past. In his essay “Unpacking my Library,” Walter Benjamin writes, “Property and possession belong to the tactical sphere. Collectors are people with a tactical instinct; their experience teaches them that when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationery store a key position. How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!”

I related to the cards very much in this world-opening, rabbit-hole way. One card in that first group I acquired particularly stood out as being a brush with history, a time and place I’d never have otherwise considered or known. It had come from a book called Literary Culture in NE. New England, where I was now living and to which I was still unadjusted. There were two names signed on the lined cardstock: D. Gile and Mrs. Greenwood. Date stamped December 17, 1939, and November 13, 1945, respectively. I looked at the name Mrs. Greenwood over and over. Who was she? I wondered. Why had she borrowed this book? What had it been like to live in a time when a woman signed her name Mrs. So-and-So? It felt to me a depersonalized act, divorced from self, with the first name struck away like that.

One Hundred YearsThe ability to remake or reconsider a very precise moment in history floored me. After Mrs. Greenwood, I began to buy all the used library check out cards I could find. Soon, I had two hundred stacked neatly in a Stride Rite shoebox. The cards gave me precise information of a book’s existence. Proof of its life.

But a different thing happened once the cards were in hand, in their full-color glory and their real skin selves. The wonder I experienced began to take shape as I backfilled a life and a husband and a whole 1930s world for Mrs. Greenwood. I wrote her story. The next week, I suggested that the members of my writing group all use one of the cards to develop a new piece of writing that incorporated some element of their assigned cards. A name, a date, a stray mark, the book’s topic, the author, the absence of patrons. Whatever struck them. The results, read aloud two weeks later, were stunning. Many people from many times emerged from the cards. Some of those stories are in the book, including Mrs. Greenwood’s Jelly, a story about a woman’s first experience with birth control.

As you flip through the pages of Please Do Not Remove, you’ll find color photographs of the cards that provided the inspiration for the corresponding prose and poetry. In some cases, the connection between the card and the text may be obvious; in others, it may be less so. My hope is that readers will be transported, not only by the stories, poems, and essays, but by the images that depict tiny slices of life, frozen moments in time, and worlds-away places. I hope that readers will remember fondly the libraries that nurtured a love of the books that provided the backdrop for untold fantastic travels of the mind.

Angela Palm's forthcoming essay collection, Riverine, is the recipient of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. The book will be published by Graywolf Press in spring 2016. Her first book, an anthology of literature called Please Do Not Remove, was published by Wind Ridge Books (2014). Angela's work also appears in apt, Hippocampus, Paper Darts, Midwestern Gothic, Sundog Lit, Prick of the Spindle, Tampa Review, and elsewhere. Angela's essay, “The Devolution of Cake,” and her short story, “Mrs. Greenwood’s Jelly,” were both nominated for the Pushcart Prize.