The Memories That Hide in Bookshelves: On the Books We Share in Relationships

When a relationship ends, what do you have? Memories? Photos? If you’re me, books. I’m big on books and knowing what the other is reading, what they like to read. And sometimes, perhaps early on, or a few weeks, a few months in to seeing someone, there may be a book, recommended sincerely, which I will accept and endeavor to read.

So I have, hidden in plain sight amongst my shelves, books that hold within them much more than their stories. When I read a book that has been recommended to me, I read it in the context of, in the full knowledge of, the fact that it was chosen for me by someone else. Just as I will fondly remember the seaside every time I think about the book Mrs. Dalloway as it was read against the backdrop of the ocean, I will forever associate certain books with certain individuals as they were read in the context of, against the backdrop of – them. And if we’re dating, or thinking about dating, the experience of reading that book is all the more vivid, and important, because of that person. And when the relationship ends, the book is still there, on my shelf.Thus, intertwined with the stories are memories, associations, pains, and hopes. And a glance at the spine of a book can quickly bring that all back.

The types of feelings vary, some are lighter than others. Skimming through the titles and testing the feelings, I sway from rushes of nostalgia – to the grateful, ‘Good Riddance!’

How does your bookshelf look? These are five titles that for me bring all the memories back:

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly and The Guy I Wish I Could’ve Liked More

This was a good recommendation from a good guy. First, on the book itself – Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of the French Elle magazine suffers a stroke and when he wakes up from a coma, he finds himself “locked-in.” That is, though his mind is fully functioning, his only way of communicating at all with the outside world is through blinking with his left eye. As one can imagine, this is catastrophic and Bauby struggles to come to terms with this new reality. However, with the help of a nurse, he learns to communicate, to spell out letters and then words through this blinking (differing numbers of blinks per letter). Through this method, Bauby himself was able to write this book. It’s moving and heart-wrenching and kind of amazing. How does one cope with a tragedy like this? How does one learn to hope?

The guy was probably as good as the book – kind, intelligent, considerate – and I feel a small pang of guilt and regret whenever I think of this book. And while I bought the book while I was still talking to him, I read it after we’d stopped. In the back of my mind then, while I was reading and enjoying the book, were thoughts like What a great book – why didn’t you give him more of a chance? He was the perfect gentleman and very considerate. A mutual friends today still guilts me today for ending it. But, you can’t pick who you like. And now the book serves as a bittersweet reminder of the fact.


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Lord of the Flies
 and Being Scared Off

Full disclosure: I have never read this book. Somehow, it was never assigned to me in school and I never picked it up later in life. And even now that I own a copy, I’m not sure I’ll bring myself to read it. But who knows, maybe one day, I will.

As to how I came to obtain the book. I met this really nice person while I was living in Copenhagen. First date, since I was new to the city, was on one of those double-decker city sight seeing buses. It was fun, different, thoughtful. He was very friendly and talkative. And while I wasn’t overwhelmingly attracted to him, I was drawn to his “niceness” and based on that, agreed to see him again. Between Date One and Date Two, there were a lot of text messages, a call even. It was all nice and sweet and nothing to complain about, except that I could feel that invisible pressure that comes when you know things are a bit one sided. And then there was Date Two. About five minutes in, I was feeling uncomfortable. He was too interested, too forward, in a way that was miles ahead of what I could match. I had secretly resolved that I probably wouldn’t agree to see him again, when, maybe ten minutes into the date, he pulled out – a present. My heart dropped. It was nicely wrapped. It was an old, worn copy of Lord of the Flies. Inside the front cover were a letter and two photographs. It turns out that this was his copy of his favorite book. He’d read it while traveling and the photographs were of the places he’d been to while reading it. My heart sank as far down as it could possibly go.

I made it through the rest of the dinner. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him then that I wasn’t interested, and a part of me was debating whether I should give him a chance. The next day I called him and told him I didn’t think it would work. He said I could keep the book.


Lord of the Flies by William Golding

This Side of Innocence
 and Discovering Another Person

This Side of Innocence by Taylor Caldwell isn’t, at least today, very well known. I had to order a used copy online and I think it’s out of print. First published in 1946, it was a bestseller. I liked it. There’s an unhappy marriage, secret passions and infidelity, the breaking up of a marriage, followed by a new marriage that is always tainted by the betrayal. There’s this general sense of woundedness and hurt and the elusiveness of happiness, especially in love. A passage I highlighted that captures this sense well is, “Happiness. Not even the founders of America had declared it as an inalienable right of man. Only the ‘pursuit of it.’ There was wisdom, there was understanding, there was sad cynicism. One only pursued it. It was rarely, if ever, attained, and then only briefly, like the sun shining for a moment through a rack of dark clouds.” Along with this view on happiness, there’s also this underlying empathy throughout the book and a recognition that pain exists in all.

I read this book, his favorite, and he agreed to read my favorite book. We didn’t know each other well. He lived somewhere else (we’d met at his going away party), but that process of reading each other’s favorites was really kind of special. I believe your favorite books are your favorites because they seem very true to you. How things happen and in particular how things end as well as any social, political, or philosophical undercurrents all ring true to you and describe to you either how you think the world is, or how the world ought to be. And that’s the way it felt when I read this book. This, I thought, is how he sees the world, and what a privilege for me to know.


This Side of Innocence by Taylor Caldwell


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Losing Yourself

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a great book. It’s a really popular book, an international bestseller even. It’s just not really my kind of book. I’ve never been one for thrillers. And yet I read this book and the other two books in the series, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. This is a whopping 1,780 pages of book that, to be frank, I didn’t really enjoy. I read them because an ex boyfriend really wanted me to read them with him, and so I did. And unlike the previous example, where the reading was a process of discovery and learning about the other person, this – wasn’t. We were just reading the book at the same time and comparing how far along we’d gotten.

Now that it’s a few years later and I can look at that relationship with clearer eyes, these three books serve as a strange symbol for what not to do and how things can go wrong. Simple things, like, don’t rearrange your life for someone else, recognize when you’re just giving, giving, giving into nothing, and don’t, don’t read 1,780 pages (“recreationally” at least) that you don’t enjoy, for anyone. Or you should probably at least stop after Book One.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

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