Berkeley is crawling with worms

Tales of Two Cities

Bookworms, that is.

Last month, I left work completely overwhelmed. The 49 wasn’t coming, so I walked home on the hottest afternoon, ever. I’m pretty sure parts of my skin melted off in protest of the high temperature — I have yet to discover the patches they left behind. On the corner of Ashby and College, I wished I could ditch my rock of a bag and the huge Amazon box in my arms without any regret. By the time I got to Telegraph Avenue, I was secretly wishing Cal had lost its game against Portland so the jubilant crowds sporting Cal gear would stop being so damn chipper and happy.

But somehow, by the time I reached Adeline, I had a wide smile on my face and an even bigger stack in my arms.

On the block between Shattuck and Adeline stands a small white house with a slanted, bridgelike white porch. And that porch was exploding with books. I could almost hear it grunting as it tried to support all the books it carried. A tiny handmade cardboard sign quietly announced that the books scattered on the porch cost 50 cents to $2, which made me wonder where the rest of the Berkeleyans were and why they weren’t there fighting over Dickens and Camus.

I have serious issues when it comes to buying books: I don’t know when to stop. Growing up in an Arab country, where the average a person reads was about half a page a year, limited the variety and quantity of books available. So I buy books like I’ll never have the chance to again. I had to smuggle in small piles last year and hide them in my bedroom because my sister swore she would fight me if I brought one more book inside our already cramped apartment. Having moved to a bigger place, I saw this as my chance to decorate.

I step inside, and suddenly I’m in paradise, where piles and piles and piles of books cover every inch of furniture. Excluding bookstores and libraries, I have never seen so many books in one place. I didn’t know where to start.

A tanned Armenian man in his late 40s walks into my newly discovered wonderland, wiping his hands on his apron as he informs me about his plans to cook for 40 friends that night. He then notices the book I’m holding, “Asterix et Obelix,” shouts its name in French and then expresses his deepest apologies: He cannot sell that book, as it has too much sentimental value.

I spent about 40 minutes with him, talking about a wide range of topics, from the Israeli treatment of olive trees — prompted by my interest in a book called “Cooking with Olive Oil” — to the library scene in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” all the while my ADHD kicking in and drawing my attention to that stack of “Harry Potter” hardcovers perched precariously on the edge of the table, the worn-out Hemingway book on the ground, the discolored French children’s book on the old TV set.

I left his house promising I would stay for dinner next time and wobbled along with my new 17 books that I got for 40 bucks, plus an elementary Arabic book he gave me for free to give to my friend. As I skipped happily — and fell repeatedly — down Ashby, I remembered my trip across the border from Jordan to Syria a few years back. The soldier searching my bag nudged a book with the butt of his gun and asked me what that was doing in my suitcase. I didn’t know how to answer him. The person driving me hastened to answer, “Mu’allem, she studies in America: They make them read books there.”

No, I wanted to say, I read because when I was a kid, I fell deeply in love with reading. My father would stuff duffel bags with books and travel with overflowing suitcases halfway around the world, all so my heart would break with Fred Weasley’s death, so I would go through the war on Tara with Scarlett, so I would live every emotion that colors Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s beautiful stories.

But I held my tongue. I felt a wave of gratitude toward my father wash over me. He’s the one who introduced me to the world of reading, which in itself has millions of different ports to other universes, some filled with black holes that suck us in once we get too close and others we must avoid at all costs because they are too alien and put our brain cells at risk, such as “Twilight.”

College = zero times the number of minutes spent on external reading. But, I am positive my love for books will emerge as a survivor after I graduate. “Harry Potter” DeCals and random Armenian men will help me make sure that happens.

And a special shout-out to my dad: Thanks for all the books and all the love. I hope your backaches will not go to waste.

Sarah Dadouch writes the Friday column on global perspectives of Berkeley. You can contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @SarahDadouch.