Love & Sex

Four Stories About Love and Literature, from The Books They Gave Me

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"I dumped the illiterate cad not long after."

Jen Adams' Tumblr, The Books They Gave Me, collects reader-submitted stories of gifted, loaned, and otherwise distributed literature. It's also being turned into a book. Here are four stories from the newly-published tome.

Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle

We dated in high school when a friend set us up. Both of us were children who didn’t know what we wanted; our relationship lasted only a few months. A year later, around Christmastime, when we went our separate ways to separate colleges, we tried it again. This time the relationship lasted years. We became best friends, in love, inseparable. We would try new restaurants. We would have bonfires on the lake. I would visit him every other weekend, and his roommates thought of me as a constant.

But looking back, we were still children who didn’t know what we wanted. We tried to want the same things, to force our just-starting lives to go in the same direction. To keep our same friend group in place always. Change was to be feared, avoided, because it was hastening our inevitable breakup.

He wouldn’t say that. He would say that the breakup came out of nowhere. A shocking, earth-shattering surprise. That thought still makes me feel a little sad, a little guilty, even all these years later.

I was always attracted by how much he read. Constantly. Everything. He never wanted to voice an opinion of a book or a writer without reading their entire life’s work, and he hated not being able to voice an opinion. So, he read. I would read the same books, hoping it would be a conversation starter. The first book he gave me was Cat’s Cradle. In it — because we were children, because serious things made us both uncomfortable, because we were both still learning how to be in relationships (never mind in a relationship with each other!) — he wrote a funny note in the front about how he promised he bought me this copy new, that he didn’t just re-gift the copy he had bought for himself. He didn’t wrap it; he just put a goofy Christmas bow on it.

I miss our friendship every day. We’ve both moved on; sometimes we see each other for coffee or at a Christmas party in town, but rarely. We usually try small talk for a while, and then sit back and wonder how we are both so different than we used to be, and then we start talking about books again. Cat’s Cradle and the note in the front seem like a moment frozen in history when there was so much potential between us.

J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey

He was handsome and sweet but not much of a reader. I gave him my (much cherished) copy of Franny and Zooey, telling him how much the book had meant to me growing up. He seemed happy, so I followed with others I thought he’d like. But when he moved in some months later, bringing with him a box of smelly secondhand paperbacks of the kind the library practically begs you to take off their hands, there was no sign of Franny and Zooey or any of the other books I’d shared with him from my collection.

He told me they must have been “accidentally” thrown out during the move. To add insult to injury, he insisted his ragtag books sit on the shelf alongside mine. I dumped the illiterate cad not long after.

Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye

We were never lovers, but there was something. An interest. Not quite a spark, but more a quiet heat that seemed ready to flare up at any moment, and yet never did. I admired him, his devotion to music and classical guitar and the way he wore his curly hair long.

We went on one date, to a movie. Afterwards we went in separate cars back to his house, and he showed me where he was working on his final project for his music master’s degree, then offered me a beer. I awkwardly declined, as I don’t drink, and it wasn’t long after that that I excused myself and went home. We hadn’t even kissed or even really touched.

Some time after that I was diagnosed with cancer and hospitalized. He came to visit me, and when he did, he gave me a copy of Ham on Rye. At the time I couldn’t focus properly on reading, so it wasn’t until many months later, when I was out of the hospital and in remission, that I finally read the book.

It was a depressing time in my life. I had learned that due to damage from chemotherapy, I likely couldn’t ever have children. I was depressed and wondered why I had lived.

Reading the book made me even more depressed, and I wondered why in the world he had given it to me.

By that point I had met the man who is now my husband, and due to my new job and going back to school, I didn’t see my ex again until after I was already married, years later. We happened to meet at a bookstore, and all the awkwardness came rushing back. I asked him out for coffee, even though I don’t drink coffee, because I wanted to ask him about the book. But he gently replied that he was there with his significant other. Embarrassed, I retreated, and I haven’t seen him since.

It’s been thirteen years since he gave me the book, and much more than cancer and infertility has happened in my life. Now I think I might finally understand what he was trying to say when he gave the book to me.

I think he might have been saying: All that suffering you’re going through? It doesn’t matter. You can still find joy.

Thank you. I did.

David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice

I met S the last semester of my undergraduate degree in Chicago. We shared a class and she was the type of student who read all the extra materials, pulled arguments effortlessly out of the readings, and rolled her eyes unabashedly when she thought someone asked a stupid question. I was in awe of her and therefore avoided contact in fear of receiving a look of disgust. She approached me, however, a few days after she had hit a bicyclist with her car. Apparently my biking to class made me one of the few people she knew who rode regularly and she felt the need to confide in someone familiar with the bicycling community.

I oftentimes think back as to what an awkward first conversation it was to begin one of the most important friendships in my life. Especially since I am in no way, shape, or form an experienced biker.

When I moved to Boston that summer with my boyfriend, I remember thinking our friendship was severely truncated and was pleasantly surprised when she began texting. Our texts turned into emails, letters, bits and bobs, and hours upon hours of phone conversations. My relationship fell apart and, since I was still living in our shared apartment, my long talks on the phone with S would often be the only respite I got from a truly miserable situation.

My ex went to visit his family for Christmas and left me in the apartment alone. I was saving money for a move to San Francisco instead of visiting my own family. I had spent holidays away before, but midway through the day I suddenly felt the need for tradition and went to grab Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris. And when it wasn’t there, I grabbed the phone with the intentions of distracting myself, but instead broke down and sobbed heavily to S.

The next day she FedExed me her personal copy of the book, inscribed to me.

This copy has accompanied me on numerous Christmases in various cities for years since.


Excerpted from The Books They Gave Me by Jen Adams. Copyright © 2012 by Jen Adams. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.