A tangent: any line that touches a circle or curved line at only one point; that point is called the point of tangency. For one moment—a moment infinitely brief, measurable only in mathematics and imaginations—the two distinct and separate lines are in the same space, moving in the same direction at the same velocity.
Last week, I received two books as gifts. The first book, a belated Christmas present from my parents, was Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.
My step-mom purchased the book on Amazon.com from a user named Doorlime, who said the book was “GREAT!.***BRAND NEW***…CLEAR,CRISP,TIGHT…WITH DUST COVER.VERY NICE BOOK”. The invoice was personalized with a note that said “Thanks, Best Regardly, Doorlime,” in large, loopy handwriting.
I’d enjoyed Fadiman’s other work, so I was excited to have this one, especially a copy that was ***BRAND NEW*** and CLEAN,CRISP,TIGHT, though I don’t really know what Doorlime meant by calling a book “TIGHT.” And I was surprised to find it wasn’t exactly brand new, either. The inside corner of the dust jacket had been snipped where the price had been, leaving only the “Cana” of Canada intact. And, what’s more, the name “Andy Rogers” was neatly written in green crayon—well, as neatly as crayon allows—on the ex libris provided in the inside cover. I knew my step-mom would have been upset to learn the book was not exactly as ***BRAND NEW*** as Doorlime had said, so I didn’t mention this when I called to thank her.
But I love used books; I’m fascinated by the idea that someone else held this book, leafed through it. So I can’t stop wondering, Who is this Andy Rogers?
There is no way to know for certain, but Google has several suggestions: He is a “worship Leader and singer songwriter” from Ireland’s Causeway Coast who enjoys “adventures in missional, ‘Guerilla’ Worship.” He is a photojournalist from Seattle who took a series of pictures about underground music concerts in DC, and he is also a wedding photographer from Melbourne, Australia. He is a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and he is a Scottish footballer. And he is a ceramic artist in Maryville, Missouri, who says that “the most import thing an artist can do is be true to, and explore themselves,” and whose “stimulation is, and always has been, found in the untouched areas around us.”
Facebook suggests Andy Rogers is a young man from Texas, but it only brought up his profile first because that Andy Rogers knows my friend Steve’s wife, Maria. There are other Facebook options, too: Andy Rogers is often a teen striking a dramatic pose in a bedroom, sometimes a fat man with a goatee, sometimes a thirty-something black man with dreads whose favorite quotation is “GOD FIRST,” who posted “NEW START” on Jan 15, to which someone named Lyn Adams replied “thank god.”
He’s also a white family man—several of him have pictures with small, happy children. He lives in Louisville and likes 80s hair bands, and he lives in Easthampton and likes massages. Sometimes he’s gay, but mostly he’s straight. He’s usually young and handsome, though not always.
Of the 304 Andy Rogerses on Facebook, not one of them mentioned Anne Fadiman or green crayons in the limited profiles I could see. There are no other markings in the book, no other clues, except for Anne Fadiman’s words themselves, which maybe Andy Rogers found as entertaining as I did, which I suppose was the point of this whole tangent—that when I read the book, I am in the same space that Andy Rogers once was or might have been. I don’t even know if he got past the cover where he inscribed his name; for all I know someone else inscribed his name for him.
And though I am white, straight, nonathletic, married without children, Christian, handsome-ish, a writer, a photographer, and a California native, he is only those things some of the time and not all at the same time; but when I read Ex Libris, I am a reader as he was once a reader. And, now that he has discarded the book, he will become part of the “long chain of readers” that Fadiman herself talks about, reveling in the knowledge that someone else has graced the pages of the used books she essays upon.
I suppose people might think it’s creepy to look through strangers’ Facebook profiles and glimpse the tidbits they have given the world, but I enjoy it. I love it when I find someone like Andy Rogers in Texas who has a friend in common with me here in Utah. I enjoy it even more when I can find enough snippets of someone’s life to make up stories, to put small pieces together for drama that doesn’t exist, for, in the words of Ann Beattie, “any life will seem dramatic if you omit mention of most of it.”
And what are social networks if not a sequence of careful omissions?
Once, when Facebook was young and still a year or two from taking off, I was exploring the world via Google Maps, and I came across Sublette, Kansas. I did a quick search for Sublette on Google, and found that it had a population of 1,592 as of the 2000 census, and that it was named for William Lewis Sublette, a French-Huguenot fur trapper the natives called “Cut Face,” which sounds like the title for a cheap horror film or maybe a Dick Tracey villain.
After I found Sublette, it was only a matter of time before I discovered Pumpkin Paradise, LLC, the only tourist attraction in town. Pumpkin Paradise features corn mazes, wagon rides, and a pumpkin catapult. The owner is Steve Weidner. I looked up Steve, and found that he was also on the Emergency Medical Response committee and a member of the graveyard council, which seemed like a conflict of interest.
By looking for more about Steve, I found his name on a court case. I learned the graveyard was sued by a couple who wanted to build a monument for unborn babies, a way to comfort parents who had lost children to “miscarriage, stillbirth and abortion,” but the bylaws stated that only graves representing actual bodies could be placed in the cemetery, and the court ruled in favor of the bylaws, so the monument, which quoted Isaiah:
I WILL NEVER FORGET YOU. SEE, UPON THE PALMS OF MY HANDS I HAVE WRITTEN YOUR NAME
was taken down.
I didn’t like Steve as much after that, even though there was nothing in the court documents that suggested he was particularly adamant about the ruling. Still, it wasn’t long before the details about the graveyard and the pumpkins led to Steve becoming the main character of a Halloween fantasy in my head, a story in which he hires zombies from the graveyard to work the pumpkin farm, but then his daughter falls in love with one of the zombies, which Steve naturally disapproves of, because he doesn’t want his family to know that he’s been using his placement on the Emergency Response team to kill off young, able-bodied men so he would have cheap labor among the pumpkins.
A few weeks ago I bought a used coat—a heavy winter coat with lots of pockets—from a lost and found sale. Inside one of the pockets I found an airline ticket that had been torn in half. The ticket was for one Sevak Tsaturyan, who was flying from Salt Lake City to St. Louis on Tuesday, November 4, 2008.
I knew all of the items I had just purchased—an umbrella, a beanie, two coats—had been lost by someone. And I knew the Lost and Found department only sells things that have been unclaimed for quite a few months. But here I knew the name of the person who used to own it, so I felt a sort of guilt, as though I were stealing, even though I learned a long time ago in an introductory law class that anything bought in good faith belongs to the buyer, even if the seller acquired the item in dubious circumstances. So my guilt had nothing to do with the legality of my purchase, but more to do with my immediate connection to these random people whose names appear in the periphery of my life, names I seem to pull out of my pocket as though it were some sort of magic trick meant to amaze only me.
—It occurs to me as I am revising this essay, several months after winter has ended, that I can look Sevak up, so I’ve just found the man on Facebook. We have four friends in common. We both attended graduate school at Brigham Young University in Utah, Sevak in the MBA program and me in the MFA. It looks like he had already graduated when I bought the coat; he now lives in San Francisco. He looks well enough off from his pictures and doesn’t appear to be freezing.
I just sent him a Facebook message to let him know I have the coat and to ask why he flew to St. Louis all those years ago. I’ll wait for his response. This may be a good time to get a drink, or use the restroom…
Okay, Sevak has replied. He said I can keep the coat; though now that he knows his name was in the pocket, he wishes the Lost and Found people had checked more thoroughly.
The truth is, he doesn’t really remember losing the coat; all he remembers is that he had to buy a new one. He flew to St. Louis for a job interview, and the flight was on the day of the elections. He told me he didn’t do well in the interview because he was upset about Obama’s win. He asked me what the coat looks like, and in my reply I gave him a description and told him I didn’t think the Lost and Found people really checked the inner pockets. I didn’t tell him that I had voted for Obama, that we share a coat but not the same political outlook.—
I suppose the whole thing about the ticket and the coat came about because I had already been pondering the random items in my possession that had someone else’s name on them. I had gone to the library to do some research, and I found a book titled North American Tree Squirrels. On the inside cover was the following bookplate:
BRIGHAM YOUNG UNIVERSITY
is pleased to place this volume in the
HAROLD B. LEE LIBRARY
in memory of
Melvin H. Leavitt
A VALUED ALUMNUS OF BYU
I couldn’t rest until I figured out who Melvin was and why he got to have his name in a book about squirrels.
I looked him up on the BYU website, but found no mention of him, making me wonder if he could really be that “valued”. An Internet search found his BYU yearbook picture from 1927, but it would have cost me $25/year to join some site, which I was pretty sure would have spammed my email account for the next infinity, so I didn’t join. Who was this Melvin, and how did a book about squirrels come to be donated in his honor?
The how part was simple: I asked a librarian how someone gets a book donated in their name—let’s be honest, I was jealous of Melvin and wanted to see how I could get a squirrel book donated for me—and they said that sometimes when people die or have a significant birthday, they ask people to donate money to the library, and then the library uses the money however they see fit. Which meant that Melvin probably didn’t have anything to do with squirrels, he was just lucky.
Eventually, thanks to Google, I did track him down, or at least a free picture of him with a bit of biography from a genealogy book that was written in the 60s. He was born and raised in Bunkerville, Nevada, and went to BYU to study agriculture. From there he moved back and forth between Reno, Nevada, and Northern Idaho, and was a bishop of his local congregations in both places.
I’m not sure what happened to him since. The biography ends with him alive and well in Reno. My Internet search says there is a 107-year-old man named Melvin Leavitt living in Nampa, Idaho, but they want to charge me 10.95/month to access an “unlimited profile,” which will probably tell me little more than his name and how old he is, but maybe not even that, because the local phone books don’t say anything about a Melvin Leavitt in Nampa or Reno.
Interestingly, there is a Melvin Leavitt currently residing in Reno, Idaho, but he was far too young to be the one I was looking for. The most I have of the one I sought is a brief bio and a picture of him with his family: three sons (one of them unfortunately named Claire), two daughters, and his wife. None of them are particularly interesting people to look at, but his name crossed my path and I can’t leave him alone.
Which is silly, I guess, because I could call the number I got from the online phone book and ask if this is the Melvin Leavitt who used to live in Nevada, who is more than 100 years old. And when he says that it is in fact him, why am I calling, I would say I saw his name on the inside of a book about squirrels, and, well, I just really like squirrels. And another random person I looked up once had written that the most import thing an artist can do is to explore themselves, and that stimulation is found in the untouched areas around us, which for me means that I explore those areas around me that would otherwise go unnoticed.
When we speak of tangents in casual conversation, when we use tangent in a non-mathematical sense, we generally mean “departure.” We go off on tangents, we speak tangentially, we essay through artistic tangents. Modern usage and dictionaries have accepted this new definition, but this use itself is a tangent from the original meaning.
Tangent comes from the Latin tangere: “to touch.” It is not “departing from” but “coming to.” We see similarities in tangent’s close cousins tangible, tact, and tactile. Less obvious are attain, to reach after and touch; contagion, literally “with touching”; and contingent with its archaic sibling pertingent. In the negative, we get integer, whole or untouched, and from there we also get entire and intact.
Tangere has entered art and medicine by through the phrase noli me tangere, which means, “Don’t touch me.” In medicine this refers to contagious skin diseases, in which the patient should remain entirely untouched. In a similar vein, noli me tangere also refers to artistic representations of Christ outside the garden tomb, in which Mary Magdalene wants to throw her arms around her resurrected Lord or kiss his feet to worship him. But he forbids her to touch him because he had not yet ascended to Heaven; then, having shown himself alive though denying her tangential urges, he departs.
I knew a man at church who looked up people’s information as a hobby. Brother Goodwin was a professional genealogist who specialized in inheritance claims, so he had accounts with those places that gave the background facts. He would use them to look up information for his clients, but also for the random people he met.
I was a missionary at the time, and I would go door to door asking people if they wanted to learn about our church. One day a family in Brother Goodwin’s neighborhood seemed particularly interested; later that night I mentioned the family to Brother Goodwin when I called him about other church matters. He asked who the family was, so I told him their name.
“Oh, they live on Ash Street, and before that lived in Texas?”
“Yeah, that’s them. You know them?”
“No, I just looked them up. Do you want to know how much they pay in taxes?”
I didn’t. Well, I did, but thought maybe it would be unprofessional while I was trying to teach them the gospel. “Render unto Caesar…,” etc.
It was that way with everyone for Brother Goodwin. Our responsibilities at church often overlapped, and whenever we visited people together, he always seemed to know details about their lives, both because he asked them directly and because he looked them up. Perhaps he was just nosy like me, but I suspected his fascination came from an actual concern for other people, a real compassion for strangers and friends alike, and genuine interest in their lives. I, on that other hand, am content to garner what I can and make up the rest. The gleaning is for my own benefit. The harvest solipsistic.
I attended a funeral with Brother Goodwin once, for a man in our congregation who had been in a hospital for several years, and whom we each visited weekly. The man’s relatives were Jehovah’s Witnesses, but they were nice enough to invite some of his Mormon friends to the wake, and as we chatted with strangers and ate from the buffet of food laid out in a humble home, someone asked Brother Goodwin if he had any children, and he said that he didn’t.
“Why not?” the woman asked.
“Well, we tried and we tried, but it just never happened.”
And in that moment, I felt ashamed for Brother Goodman—I admit that I thought of him and his wife trying and trying, and I blushed. But I was also sad for him, this man who connected himself to everything and everyone, who was the first to volunteer to help a stranger, who looked up strangers’ names in his databases and found out their intimate details, not because he was a snoop, but because he liked people. And yet, despite trying and trying, he wasn’t able to pass that on to anyone.
Several years later, Brother Goodman died of a heart attack, though it’s hard to imagine him with a failing of the heart. He went quickly, from what a friend told me, literally dropped dead.
A few days ago I was in the optometrist’s office waiting for my appointment. I didn’t find a magazine I wanted to look at, so I was absent-mindedly contemplating Melvin Leavitt and the ticket stub from my coat, when I became aware of the web of connections there in the office. Someone had made the mirror, and probably someone else had made the machine on which the mirror was made; someone had installed the lights; the counters and cabinets were made by someone else; and then I saw the hundreds of frames hanging in the cabinets, and I knew that someone had put each frame on display, and someone else had designed them. The pair of Jones New York frames I ultimately chose must have been tried on by someone else, and the five other pairs I tried on but didn’t buy will be tried on by five more people each, but only one person will take each of those pairs home, and with it the indelible traces of my invisible past. The receptionist’s computer, the chair I was sitting on, the magazines on the end table, the clothes I was wearing, the…
Eventually, I had to stop because I got dizzy. There is no end to such thinking.
Which brings me to the second book I received last week. My friend and professor Pat Madden gave me a copy of Scott Russell Sanders’s The Paradise of Bombs, which had been signed by the author:
For Gary Hatch—
my first collection of essays,
where I revealed my apprenticeship
to this marvelous form—
Scott R. Sanders
16 Oct 2009
Such signatures—from the author to some other person—are almost as exciting as having the author sign it for you, because it has all the implications of other used books, but also traces its pedigree back to the author himself. In Ex Libris, Fadiman also revels in such finds,
Such holy relics of literary tangency eclipse all other factors: binding, edition, rarity, condition. ‘The meanest, most draggle-tailed, foxed, flead, dog’s-eared drop of a volume’ … is instantly transfigured by an inscription with a sufficiently distinguished pedigree.
The book I’d received was actually in pretty good condition, but its signature made it all the more exciting because I had recently heard the story of Gary Hatch, though I had never met him.
An English professor at BYU in his forties, with a successful career as a teacher, Gary Hatch was well liked by his colleagues, who remembered him as a voracious reader.
One day he told the Dean that he’d had a premonition he wouldn’t be teaching at BYU by the end of the year. He didn’t know why this would be the case, but he suggested the dean start looking for a replacement. A few months later, he came home early from a party, telling his wife he didn’t feel well, and then he collapsed. He died a few hours later. Months afterward, the other professors distributed Gary’s books among themselves, and when I told Pat that I wanted to read The Paradise of Bombs, he told me he had an extra copy and gave me the one he’d acquired from Gary’s collection.
Other than the inscription from the author, there are no markings in the book. The binding is clean, neat, tight, the book looks brand new. I have no proof Gary actually read the book, only that he owned it once. The author’s passage sounds perfunctory, and there is no sign of any real connection between the two men. Pat told me Gary Hatch helped fund Scott Russell Sanders’ visit to campus, but that Gary missed the reading because of a scheduling conflict, and that when he went to greet the author, Mr. Sanders had already inscribed the passage for him, having prepared the book as a thank you. I imagine Mr. Sanders with the book some moments before, the pen hovering over the not-yet signed book, considering just what words to say.
And now the book rests beside me, a tangible prayer for Professor Hatch who has departed his short life, and who is only a part of mine because of that departing. Under contemplation, I see a universe of lines stretching forth from that book, an infinite web of paths curving, touching briefly and intangibly, moving in the same direction at the same speed for a time incalculable, before paths diverge in a fracturing web and the lines extend forever with infinite tangencies. And in the midst of all that, I touch what I can never fully comprehend.
SCOTT RUSSELL MORRIS lives in Lubbock, TX, where he is an English PhD student at Texas Tech University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. His other work has appeared in Brevity, Blue Lyra Review, and Stone Voices. He is mildly obsessed with squirrels, which means nearly all of his essays mention one somehow.