When I first met Wolfgang, who sells second-hand books on second-hand tables outside the Humboldt University in Berlin, he was matted and cross. He had been looking for something—poking under tables, shuffling books. I was leaning off one side of a too-tall rental bike, examining the book covers on a table dominated by classic East German fiction: Christa Wolf, Günter de Bruyn, names familiar to me only from other reading. What do you want with all that, he grumbled, in English. Trash, trash, the lot of it. His English was good, but overeager; he replaced his w with a predictable v.
We were standing on the Unter den Linden, an expansive tourist-packed boulevard that travels East to West across Berlin. This street was named after the Linden trees that line it; they were replanted in the 1950s, but in this vast construction site of a city, they might as well have been eternal. We were standing on the eastern side, but only just. Ich kann Deutsch, you know, I told him, but he refused to speak in German to me. All of it, trash, he said, I don’t know what you want, all of you, with this trash.
By “all of us” I assume he meant the thousands of young people who flock to Berlin nowadays: the gentrifying legions of artists, art admirers, lost souls, and students. Do we know what we want? We go there, the most of us, to explore the crumbling structures of a fallen down city. Adrienne Rich has a poem where she says that being young is about learning to live in someone else’s house. We who traipse about Berlin in the summer—we go there to play in someone’s ruins not our own.
Wolfgang, I found out, hates this city. But he grew up here, and it is home. He has never thought of leaving.
As Wolfgang talked me out of the books he was selling, I thought of a news piece that I’d read once for a class: when the Berlin Wall came down, and East Germans were free, they went and threw out books en masse, giant piles of books which gathered in yards and in landfill. All of these, it seems, were tied up, either with memories of oppression or cringes of embarrassment, maybe even both. Wolfgang hasn’t condemned his stuff to recycling, at least. But he still sees a case to insist on my caution.
When I talked to Wolfgang that day, we were just a few blocks from the Bebelplatz memorial, which commemorates the book burnings under the Nazis. For a moment, I wondered if there was some kind of connection. But then I thought—no, I’m just a tourist here, these are not my fights to fight.
It is just a few weeks until I graduate. I am doing fine about it, really, just fine—there are only occasionally moments when it feels like the milestone it is. One of those moments came the other day, when I was planning what to do with all my books. I live on the other side of the world; to take them all with me would be impractical. When I arrived freshman year, I didn’t bring any books with me: If there was one thing there would be enough of at Harvard, I thought, it would be books. So I didn’t bring any.
But the Harvard books weren’t my books, and having my books in my bookshelf has been a source of delight to me. Trying to hazard through which ones to keep, which ones to sell, which ones to give away—and which people I have to ask to get my books back from them—has been properly unsettling.
I always used to be frightened of books, in school. Big books, I mean, not the little ones; the little ones never frightened me. Magazines, novellas, TV guides, promotional leaflets—all of these, no worries. But big books, really big ones, the ones you need a whole hand to carry. Those ones freaked me out.
I had a friend who liked books before I did, a skinny bloke with a ponytail who wore denim on denim way before it was cool (it’s cool, now, I swear). When he picked up a book, his whole body received it. Sometimes he cradled it like a child; sometimes it sat in the crook of his knee.
I was always scared to start a novel, or a history. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish, or that I wouldn’t be able to stop, which was much more often the case—I would stay up all night on my back turning pages after pages, before finally with a sigh throwing the bloody thing across the room and falling asleep. Then, when I was eyeing up the next book, the same trepidation would come.
The first novel that I really enjoyed in high school was called “Cloudstreet.” I finished it on the way to a family holiday, all alone in the back of the car. I was pretty much nauseous, and I was bewildering my family, and I loved it. This book thing, I thought, this book thing was mine and mine alone—and it was dangerous.
Now, I’m fairly comfortable with books. One should hope so, after majoring in History & Literature. But though the thrill of the objects is gone, I find it terribly hard to get rid of them. Is it too much to say that they have character, I wonder? With their coffee stains, the bends in their spine, their absurd marginalia? Or is it their there-ness, the way you might forget that you own a book until it shows up again, the way you never know what’s in there really until you open it up and look?
I think my attachment might be to the danger, to the same kind of danger I used to sense as a teenager. This danger of surplus, I mean, when books are big enough that you can’t entertain all the things that are in there. This danger being that they’re too big to keep all their contents account in focus. And the other kind of danger—that you’ll come back to re-read and find it’s you who’s gone and changed in the meantime.
A friend of mine suggested that I photograph my bookshelves. So now I know I won’t forget what books I had. But I think what worries me is that those books will only be there when I look for them, now—they won’t just be there any more.
And if I’m frightened about graduating, then maybe it’s about the same thing: now everything, and everyone, will only be there when I look for them.
Alexander J.B. Wells ’13-14 is a History and Literature concentrator living in the Dudley Co-Op. After college, he’ll be working on his German-indie-folk outfit, “Wolfgang of One.”