The first thing I did after I put on the gloves was I closed my eyes and breathed in. A smell so familiar it might as well be my own body: the brittle must of books, the dust and ink and decades-old fingerprints on a hundred thousand volumes. You might know that smell too, might be able to call it to mind right now. The smell of your university library, of the shelves at your grandparents’ house, of every used bookshop you’ve ever browsed. The smell of the last bookstore I’ll visit, I know, for quite some time.
A few days ago I saw a message on Twitter from a bookstore I like in Washington, D.C., inviting patrons to book individual one-hour shopping appointments. “Ever dream of having Capitol Hill Books all to yourself?” the tweet read. “Now you can.” I had, in fact, often dreamed of having a used bookshop all to myself, though my dreams mostly involved me living above the store, which I owned, because I somehow had become a rich dilettante. But I would settle for this one-hour quarantine version. Like everyone I knew, I was already feeling stir-crazy, missing not only human interaction but the mere experience of being in a place that wasn’t my home or the three-block radius around it. I reserved a slot Friday morning at 10.
Miriam placed my books on the old wooden chair propping open the door after I’d taken a few steps back, and then I picked them up with my be-gloved hands.
“Should I toss my credit card in, or leave it on the chair here?” I asked.
“No,” Miriam told me—they are being very strict about social distancing (as they should be). “Just read out the numbers on your credit card—Troy will ring it up!” she called back.
Jessica Anthony’s slim and perverse political satire “Enter the Aardvark” begins with the creation of Earth. The first scene traces a “whirling mass of vapors” as it becomes sediment and ocean, where flagellates and plankton evolve to grow tails and mouths and fins. As they scoot toward the edge of the water, the author describes the emergence of the first land creature: “Here begins the Great Creep.” She then quantum-leaps to a power outage in Virginia circa 2020, and a closeted young Republican congressman on the verge of a career-endangering high-stakes romp.
Though evolution montages may be somewhat overused as a film trope, here the gambit reads as free, ambitious and thematically crucial. In the tradition of the best existential farces, “Enter the Aardvark” keeps returning to the beginning of all things to ask: So how did we get here?
One of the most compelling elements of memoir is the possibility of encountering a voice whose experience somehow resonates with your own, particularly when that voice has been traditionally underrepresented in literature. Writers of such stories have over the last several years also been questioning the very form of conventional memoir; rather than presenting a narrative built around recollections of significant moments relayed directly to the reader, many are pushing formal boundaries to develop a deeper expression of the self. Carmen Maria Machado, for instance, turns the memoir into an exploration of genre in In the Dream House, which focuses on themes of love, abuse, and healing; readers encounter noir, daydream, shipwreck, and even Choose Your Own Adventure passages that contribute to her overall presentation of narrative as dream house. The cumulative impact of these varied modes of looking reveals how we tell ourselves different stories to make sense of what we have gone through. Ted Chiang expresses a similar sentiment beautifully in his short story “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” writing, “People are made of stories. Our memories are not the impartial accumulation of every second we’ve lived; they’re the narrative that we assembled out of selected moments.”
The aunts here clink Malbec glasses
and parade their grief with musky, expensive scents
that whisper in elevators and hallways.