My favorite book came to me on a monotonous Tuesday.
I was sitting in my living room drinking a cup of coffee — my usual routine on an afternoon of quarantine. It was then that a small brown box was delivered to my door, carrying within it a slightly worn, but still intact, copy of Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights.”
The week before, I had signed up for an anonymous book exchange on a whim. Over quarantine, I had already circulated through “On the Road,” “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “Lolita.” But while these paperbacks retained a certain stiffness, this mysterious copy of “Wuthering Heights” had the indelible mark of time.
There is something so inexplicably romantic about a used book. There is a story in the way it falls open to a seemingly random page; there is vitality in the way it smells when you first open the front cover. In my copy of “Wuthering Heights,” there was a lightly penciled transcription: Donated by Mia Hartmann ’09. Had it formerly lived in a library, watching students as they punched numbers into their calculators and revised their term papers? How many hands had it passed through before it made its way out of the aisled bookshelves and onto my doorstep?
As I flitted through the book, looking for more signs of life, a small beige piece of paper fell from within. “I hope you stay safe and healthy during these crazy times and that you enjoy Wuthering Heights,” the anonymous letter said. “It has inspired many authors and perhaps it will inspire you.”
And that it did. Just as the air swarmed with Catherines, so too did my mind with thoughts of the previous readers. Did they feel the visceral wind on the moors between Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange? Did their hearts ache for Isabella Linton as she fell through the cracks of a loveless marriage? Did they have to look at the family tree diagram at least 15 times just to keep track of all the characters?
The book had few annotations, so clues came to me in the form of folded corners and browning pages. On page 80, however, a previous reader underlined a passage in dark blue pen: “He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” This has since become one of my favorite literary passages. It possesses a certain simplicity and candor that speaks to a familiar feeling I cannot quite put into my own words.
Brontë’s writing taught me something of the all-consuming, destructive capacities of love. But it was through previous readers that I truly felt the power of a shared experience. To say I would appreciate the passage on page 80 without the direction of the delicate blue underline is up for debate, but what I do know is that there is someone else out there who has felt somehow shaped by the beautiful prose of Cathy’s confession.
Perhaps, there is power not only in language, but in the collective, nonverbal experience of reading and interpreting a piece of literature.
My reading experience was unequivocally shaped by my indirect dialogue with the remnants of readers past. There is beauty in this haunting effect — the sense that others have occupied this space and remain in some ephemeral form. I was inserted into not only a confusing family tree of Earnshaws, Lintons and Heathcliffs, but into a lineage of previous readers who felt moved by Brontë’s honest exploration of the dark corners of love.
I have since become a strong believer in the power of a used book. I spend my days strolling through the aisles of Half Price Books, glancing over worn-down spines and wondering which hands had traced over the titles. “Jane Eyre” and “The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice” have become living things that breathe by my bedside, holding within them the lives of Charlotte Brontë, Allen Ginsberg and those who have felt somehow compelled by their words.
Yet, “Wuthering Heights” continues to occupy a special place in my heart and my bookshelf — located just above my Kate Bush records. I am still mustering up the strength to let it go so that it can continue through its circle of life. I have considered writing a note or leaving a few annotations of my own, but I feel page 80 says more than I ever could.
Even when I no longer have my physical copy of “Wuthering Heights,” the previous readers will have left a permanent mark on the fabric of my being. Whatever souls are made of, theirs and mine are somehow the same. Our collective, nonverbal experience exists in each page — just waiting to be passed down to the next fateful reader.
Lauren Harvey writes the Monday A&E column on the relationship between art and the unspoken. Contact her at [email protected].