An email arrives, telling me that my actress friend Tovah is performing in New York in a play called Love, Loss, and What I Wore, ‘an intimate collection of stories by Nora and Delia Ephron based on the book by Ilene Beckerman’. It sounds like a good idea, sifting through your life by remembering what you wore to the home coming dance, what you were wearing when you had your first kiss, what you wore the night you met the man you would marry.
And this being a play by women for women, remembering what you wore when you walked down the aisle/christened your first-born/signed the divorce papers/buried your mother. A kind of Desert Island Discs in which clothes trigger the memories that tell the story of our lives.
Problem is, clever as the idea is, clothes aren’t my lodestar. I remember some outfits-the purple dress and orange coat that I bought at Bloomingdale’s my freshman year, along with a cloche hat made of mink tails that I bought second-hand at The Bargain Box. I wore this outfit whenever I made an excursion from the Bohemian/blue-stocking that I was attempting to be. That girl had swapped all her dresses, wraparound skirts and Weejun loafers for shifts shaped like pillowcases made from Indian bedspreads.
But it’s the books from those years that stand out: a boxed two-volume set of the poems of D. H. Lawrence and the Complete Poems of Marianne Moore; a Penguin Classics edition of Middle-march, given to me by a friend who fled to Canada to avoid the draft; The Tin Drum by Günter Grass that I read to impress a serious boyfriend; and R. D. Laing’s slender Penguin edition of The Divided Self, sent to me from England by a friend at Cambridge on a Fulbright.
Inscribed in his astronomer’s scrawl: ‘We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is disappearing. Love, Steve.’ The book was incomprehensible, but I kept it because of the romantic inscription. Years later, I learned it was a quote from the author, not the sender.
Far more than a pair of shoes, books evoke time and place in my life. Even the books I’ve parted with-three volumes of the writings of Lenin, the novels of Taylor Caldwell-remind me of who I used to be. When I open books I’ve lugged from country to country Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, short stories by Mavis Gallant, Janet Flanner’s Paris Journal, the letters and diaries of Virginia Woolf-I can remember the rooms I read them in, the job I had, the car I drove, even the typewriter where I wrote letters in the style of the writer I was reading.
In this era of more and cheaper clothes, it’s rare to have one dress that engraves an experience indelibly in our memory. But what worries me more is the vanishing imprint of books. Last year, my sister received a Kindle for Christmas. She rejoices in the freedom it gives her. My friend Storm got one from her children for her 65th birthday and says it’s perfect for the life of the vaga-bond she now aspires to have. Amazon now lists the Kindle version before the hardback, and Apple is forecast to sell 28 million iPads, its rival to Kindle, in 2011.
Although this is a household drowning in books, I feel sad for the generation that will never be able to take a road trip into its past simply by going to a book shelf. Millions of young men will never know the pleasure of picking up an old copy of The Catcher in the Rye and remembering the hot, rainless summer when they still occupied the family home geographically, but fled it emotionally under the tutelage of Holden Caulfield. Young girls will not know the pain of loving a book so much (Little Women, Rebecca) that they had to sleep with the book beside them. Laing was right: it’s all so speeded up. We only see it as it fades out of sight.