One of the rooms at work has a low bookcase in one corner. Neither the room nor the bookcase is the responsibility of any one person. A number of us use the room regularly, use the top of the bookcase sometimes to rest papers needed in a presentation, often stand up on the two shelves any binders or books a previous presenter may have left behind on the tables.
The bookcase becomes invisible because no one needs to care what is on it.
No one is likely to be charged any time soon with clearing those low shelves. Outdated materials that are there tend to stay, more and more out of date. Superfluous copies of a single item remain multiple and – superfluous. Random books that no one can imagine a reason for keep claiming space.
Meanwhile we live our interesting lives. In the air above that low bookcase, in conversations and discussions and deliberations we pursue goals and work out compromises at the tables in that useful room. We enter and leave according to schedules that show up in emails and message boards. We plug and unplug our laptops. We note people passing in the hall outside the doors. We make our plans for lunch and try to recall what we told ourselves to pick up on the way home from work. Online bank statements record the number of times each month that we visit the electronic teller down the street and how much each withdrawal is.
We know how to tell one another about that life.
Or we think we do.
Then what about the life that I glimpsed yesterday three or four times when I opened at random a book from that low bookcase? No email had told me to open it, no presentation depended on what I found written on the pages of a discarded paperback edition of Madame Bovary that I pulled off the shelf.
Each time I returned the book to the shelf, though, I became more and more aware of having glimpsed a world that I was now putting aside. What kind of world was it, though? What kind of world, what kind of life could there really be in the pages of that printed book that had anything to say to the table of people that I rejoined each time?
What would I need to do to find that out?
I would have to acknowledge the claims of a kind of activity that was interior. People might see me reading a book but they could not see the world that had assumed some kind of reality for me in the moments of reading it.
Do I really meet Emma Bovary in the pages of that book? Or do I meet Gustave Flaubert? Or do I meet me?
I have taken it home, taken that discarded paperback home, taken it for myself from a shelf that remains invisible because no one needs to care what is on it.