I was always a reader. As a kid, I walked to the library several times a week and stayed up late reading with a flashlight. I checked out so many books and returned them so quickly the librarian once snapped, “Don’t take home so many books if you’re not going to read them all.”
“But I did read them all,” I said.
I was an English major in college and went on to get a master’s in literature. When I created my online dating profile, I made my screen name “missbibliophile52598.” Filling out the “favorite books” section, I let my taste in literature speak for me: One Hundred Years of Solitude, A Moveable Feast, White Teeth, The Namesake, The Known World, The God of Small Things, How to Read the Air.
But I realized it had been more than two years since I had read most of those titles. I had stopped reading gradually, the way one heals or dies. I tried to maintain my bookish persona. I joined book clubs that I never attended. I requested a library book everyone was reading, only to return it a week late, unread, with fines.
I still loved the idea of reading. I treasured books and bookstores. Whenever I found one, I would linger between the shelves for hours as if catching up with old friends, picking out volumes I had read and buying new ones. But it was clear to me: I was becoming a person I did not know.
David was my first online date. His profile said he liked to read, so I asked him about his last book. His face lit up and his fingers danced. David read much more than I did, about a book or two a week. We seemed an unlikely couple: me, a five-foot-three black woman born to a Caribbean mother, and him, a six-foot-four white guy from Ohio. But as we got to know each other, our shared faith and mutual love of books bridged our gaps.
When we compared libraries, we had only four titles in common. David preferred history and nonfiction, whereas I gravitated toward fiction writers of color and immigrant narratives.
On our seventh date, David and I visited the library.
“I have a game,” he said, pulling two pens and Post-its out of his bag. “Let’s find books we’ve read and leave reviews in them for the next person.”
We wandered the aisles for an hour. In the end, we sat on the floor among the poetry, and I read him some. He listened, his head tilted down, asking, “What is it you like about that one?”
That spring, as we picnicked outside, I said, “If I tell you something, will you not judge me?”
David paused from listing the titles he planned to read over the summer and raised his eyebrows.
“I’ve only read one book this year,” I said.
“But it’s June,” he said.
“But you like books,” he said. “You like bookstores. You like libraries.”
“Is it a deal breaker?”
“No, but still. Read a book!”
I was painfully aware of the glaring hypocrisy in my life. I defended the virtues of bookstores in the age of online retailing and bought books whenever I got the chance, but I hardly read them. They sat on every surface until my house appeared to wear books the way one wears clothes. They piled up on chairs and draped across sofa arms.
The Japanese language has a word for this: tsundoku. The act of acquiring books that go unread.
Each of my bookshelves holds two rows of books, an inner and an outer. Surrounding the bookshelf are stacks containing different categories of books: Books I Have Read. Books I Want to Read. Books I Started but Did Not Finish Because I Did Not Like Them. Books I Started and Loved but Could Not Justify Reading Given Their Graphic Sexual or Violent Content.
The next time I visited a dollar bookstore, I bought five titles for myself and two for David. His charge to “read a book” echoed in my head. One afternoon, I picked up one I’d bought solely for its poetic title.
I had a hard time getting into it. The narrator was an old man, but he sounded more like what a young woman thought an old man might sound like. Whenever I was tempted to give up on it, I thought of David. He had just started reading Infinite Jest.
I pushed through the first two chapters and discovered a new narrator in the third. I loved the alternating points of view. I carried the book to work. I read at lunch and on my walk home, occasionally lifting my eyes to avoid strangers and uneven concrete.
“How’s your day?” David texted.
“Good. A little tired,” I replied. “I stayed up late and finished my book.” I tried to slip it in casually, but I was proud of myself. The last time I’d pulled an all-nighter to read, I was 12 and the book was Little Women.
It was not a competition, but there was a tug. I felt him pushing me to be more of the person I used to be and more of who I wanted to be. Whenever he turned to discussing his current nonfiction book about the rise of Silicon Valley or environmental philosophers, I would tell him of fiction, of men who left their countries by hiding in boxes only to climb out and turn into birds. I would remind him that sometimes the only way to explain the world we live in is to make it all up.
I asked David once what he liked about me.
He paused, then said, “You make me less cynical. I see the world as a more wonder-filled place with you.”
David suggested we visit the library again. He asked if I remembered the game we played on our first visit.
“I remember,” I said.
He pulled a book from the shelf, dropped to one knee, and opened it. Inside, his Post-it read: “Karla, it has always been you. Will you marry me?”
His proposal had rested between the pages of The Rebel Princess for over a year.
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll marry you.”
We embraced in the middle of the fiction aisle, surrounded by other people’s stories, about to begin our own.