On Sundays in high school when I wasn’t working I’d beg my mother or stepfather to drive me to the Metro station (20+ minutes away). There, I’d take the train into downtown DC and wander. I’d walk for miles, this street to that street, a stop here, there. I left the streets and the stops up to chance.
As I walked, I’d periodically take notes to capture flashes of past, present, future, the destinations where I traveled in my mind, the places where my brain transported me. What was odd, out of place, different, unexpected, new? Those are the details I recorded.
One Sunday I popped into a used bookstore, the smell like an attic, a musty hideaway, vanilla, wood, rose petals, mildew. A bell above the door announced my entrance. I ran my fingers over bindings with yellowed pages, books on dusty wooden shelves set against brick walls, black block writing on slips of paper taped to the shelves to mark the section.
The books were all joy and intimidation, a reminder of the shocking number of texts in print, so many books in the world that I’d never read no matter how many hours I devoted to the task. But I’d do what I could, and so I tugged books off shelves, weighed them in my hands, heard the telltale opening creak of hardbacks seldom read, ran my fingers over textured titles, returned the books to their proper spaces, aligning spines against the shelf rims.
That Sunday a book of love letters exchanged between William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft caught my attention. Godwin was the author of Political Justice, a 1793 treatise on the viability and benefits of an anarchist society. Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she argues that women appear inferior to men only because of the differences in their education. (Wollstonecraft died in 1797, 10 days after giving birth to her daughter, also named Mary, who would one day marry poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and write Frankenstein.)
Well, I bought the book of letters. And the guy behind the counter? He thought I was the cat’s pajamas. He praised my book selection, and he smiled so big that I smiled so big. I felt the stretch and pull of chapped lips and the flood of joy that comes from having done something worthwhile and good. In my mind, I’d entered an intellectual inner circle, through I’d done it through literary selection rather than through a more time-honored route of acuity and accomplishment.
After I left, a guy on the street approached me asking for money. I told him the truth. I didn’t have any. That pissed him off, and he lectured me about taking for granted my privileged status in the world. I remember simultaneously thinking, “dude, I’m funding my own schooling and about to take out tens of thousands of dollars in college loans—I’ve got nothing to give” and “shit, I’ve got nothing to give because I literally spent my last dime on a used copy of late-eighteenth-century love letters.”
The Godwin Wollstonecraft love letters. I still have that book.