Over the last week, loose pages from The Bluest Eye have been appearing outside my house. Page 156 in the front garden. Page 147 caught under the chain-link fence. Page 132 in the backyard.
I picked up the first page, which was yellowed with a jagged edge, and brought it inside. It had the stiff, wavy texture of a thing made wet before it dried. I put it on the narrow table in my front hallway, weighting it under a pair of sunglasses, and left it there. I didn’t fully know why.
When I found the next two pages on my property, I placed them in the recycling bin on top of the cardboard and bottles. I balanced the pages into place carefully, so I could pluck them out later if I changed my mind.
I’m sentimental about books as physical objects, but only up to a point. I go through my books periodically, culling those I didn’t love, or those I haven’t read and don’t suspect I will, or those that I’m simply ready to let go. I haul heavy boxes of books to the library, the used bookstore, the thrift shop. I love books, but I also know their weight.
And if one ever starts to fall apart, even if it’s happening right before my reading eyes, I let it go.
An old paperback copy of Maugham’s Of Human Bondage started to disintegrate in my very hands the summer I traveled alone across Canada and down the West Coast. I began the book not long after I’d boarded a train in Toronto, and I continued reading as I moved west. Pages fell from the book’s shaky binding as fast as I could read them.
I discarded those loose pages in the train’s garbage bins and in the tiny Canadian towns we stopped at along the way. The train ride took three full days, but I didn’t finish the book in that time. Of Human Bondage is a long novel, and I also had plenty of other distractions: hours of basking in the scenery in the train’s observation deck, writing in my journal, chatting with other passengers. By the time I stepped off the train in Vancouver, I still had the second half of the book tucked away in my bag.
Of Human Bondage came with me to my Vancouver hostel, then across the U.S. border and down to Seattle, Portland, the Redwood National Park, and San Francisco. In every location, I read more and lost more until, finally, there was nothing left. Once I finished the last page, I threw the rest of the broken book away.
I didn’t experience any guilt over that lost novel. It had lived its life, and I had been its final reader: one last pair of eyes scanning the pages until they bloomed themselves loose. In this way I was changing the book, just as the book was changing me.
I was twenty-two, a new college graduate, when I took that solo trip out west. When I look back on those travels now, I picture pages from Of Human Bondage flaring out behind me down the coast, marking where I’d been in the only way I’ve ever known: through words, through writing.
For a long time, a two-inch stack of pages from Middlemarch waited in the top corner of the built-in bookcase in my living room. Like Of Human Bondage, this was a worn copy of a thick paperback edition, and by the time I got to it, the novel could no longer contain itself. It fell apart gradually as I read. I did my best to hold the book together until I’d finished, and then I recycled the pages without ceremony.
But not all of them. I saved a stack of pages with the vague idea that I could one day use them for an art project. Maybe I could wallpaper a wall with those pages, or decoupage a piece of furniture, or tape them together into a sheet of wrapping paper.
For months, maybe even years, I left those pages in place on that shelf. Every time I reached past them to select a different book, I felt a stab of guilt. I knew I should let them go. I should put them with the rest of the recycling, where they would get beaten down to a pulp and built up again to live a second life. But I was drawn to the dream of pasting those pages together again, of holding them in place with a transparent skim of glue. Of taking something that had existed one way and revising it to become another.
I’ve moved too many times in my life to take objects lightly—any object, even a stack of novel pages. Anything extraneous will one day become a burden. My home is already filled with too much stuff, junk that I don’t need, and whenever I feel capable of taking swift action to toss or donate something, I do it.
So one day I walked by the bookcase, picked up those last lingering Middlemarch pages, and threw them away.
In Wild, Cheryl Strayed burns the books she reads on the Pacific Crest Trail to reduce the weight of her pack. With few exceptions—she trades a collection of Flannery O’Connor short stories, and she saves Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, the only book she carries the entire way—all her books go up in flames. She burns As I Lay Dying. She burns Lolita. She burns Dubliners.
“It hurt to do it, but it had to be done,” she writes.
In recent years, I’ve begun viewing my physical books with a similar practical eye. I’m not about to start burning the books that take up too much space in my life, but I want to do a better job of letting them go. I also try to put the process in perspective. When I cull my book collection, for example, I know it doesn’t have to mean goodbye forever. A book is not singular. A book is many times over, both electronically and in print. I keep my favorites, the special ones, and then I release as many others as I possibly can. And when a book completely and irrevocably falls apart, I don’t try to piece it together again.
But then there’s The Bluest Eye, those loose pages that made their way to my home. There’s the first page I saved, and then the one torn clean in half that I removed from the recycling bin just this afternoon. What is a book if not a conversation, and how can I, as a reader, ignore these voices unfolding themselves at my feet?
Sometimes I imagine how these pages came to be set loose upon my neighborhood in the first place. Was it another case of an unglued spine, as it was for my copies of Of Human Bondage and Middlemarch? Maybe, but I like to picture something more dramatic: a lover’s quarrel, someone spurned, the furious decision to rip out every last page one by one. Or perhaps there was a crash or explosion, a jolt that sent the pages raining down from the sky.
Either way, there’s an energy behind these lost pages, a force that freed them and sent them out into the world. They persist, and yet they are temporary. The pages left outside will succumb to the elements, and the ones I saved will eventually find their way into the recycling bin for good.
But until then, I can hold one of the discarded pages and read a fragment of a larger story. In this way, I can do for The Bluest Eye what I did for those other novels that fell apart in my hands.
I can, for one last time, make it come alive.