My sister always wanted built-in bookshelves. So when she bought a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Washington, she hired a carpenter. Soon, there were glossy cookbooks as you stepped through the front door, fiction when you crossed the living room, travelogues by her desk, academic tomes at the foot of her bed. I remember admiring all her novels, saying I wished to have read all she had. So little time to read everything.
Emily turned 39 in November 2010. Her breast cancer was diagnosed three months later, and she died on May 16, 2012.
In late July of that year, near the peak of the punishing Washington summer, I flew to the city, which had been hers but which now bears for me the horror of what happened. I enjoyed the capital once; now, all I see are hospitals. But she had asked me to deal with her affairs, so I went to empty her apartment.
My first evening was so quiet, each room haunted with recent memories. I mumbled, addressing her when I stood before the shelves. “Dude,” I said, a term of affection we used reciprocally, especially when things were bad, “I can’t believe this happened.” I saw her shrugging.
Before me were pages into which she’d poured thousands of hours, from early childhood until a few months earlier. There were books with my inscriptions to her, others from a shared past that I now share with no one.
If you crave books, covet them, slam them shut in outrage, then they accumulate around you, becoming rows of memories: an edition lent at the start of a passion, never returned at the end; a volume cautioning against peril, or luring you to it; a book whose characters were your allies, even if you rarely frequent them today. But at the sight of that particular copy, you remember.
Emily’s library remained like a silent repository of her, and I had to dismantle it. I hesitated before taking out a first clutch of books, knowing that they would never slot back again.
I found a kids’ book, “The Snarkout Boys & the Avocado of Death,” that I always considered mine and she always believed was hers — a summation of how we had viewed childhood generally. Only later did our competition recede, each gaining affection for the other’s skills and craziness.
I found books on psychology written by our parents. Books she’d started but never finished. Books with sticky notes in them — she was passionate about sticky notes. I discovered packets everywhere, in neon pink, yellow, green. Each time I found a note in a margin, it made me scour the text for why. Marked in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: “Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.” — David Hume.
Many of her books I associate with her childhood bedroom in Vancouver, where she read one astonishingly thick book after another, such as the red hardcover of “War and Peace,” which bears our father’s handwriting inside: “To darling Emily, With fondest love on your 12th birthday, from Mum & Dad. x x x x”
There are books I forgot I had given, such as “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” in which I (at age 15) printed in pencil: “Dear Emily, happy 18th birthday, I got you this book because it is very funny, and overall ace.”
The textbooks in her Washington bedroom charted Emily’s route after leaving home: the University of Toronto (two degrees in archeology before quitting a PhD); next to Boston (teach-yourself books on HTML from her days at dot-coms; volumes on mortgage-backed securities from the MBA program at Northeastern University, where she studied with Mike Dukakis, who encouraged her to take up public service); copious books on conflict in Afghanistan (first at the Government Accountability Office in Washington, then at the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, finally joining the RAND Corporation days before her diagnosis).
I found books such as “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression” that made me wonder if there were aspects of her life I hadn’t known about. Closer inspection found a marked page on alcoholism — not a problem for her, but for a man she was once with. I found reminders of joyful times, too, including an evening she’d passed kidding with one of her favorite comic writers, John Hodgman, who inscribed his book “The Areas of My Expertise” in silver marker with the words, “To Emily — I’m a Zeppo man, myself.” (They’d been discussing the respective merits of the Marx Brothers.)
One book that remained unread was “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” which she bought during her illness but could not bring herself to open. Another volume was “Griftopia” by Matt Taibbi, which our brother gave to Emily during the final stages of her life. It was, I believe, the last book she began. The corner of page 65 is folded.
I considered shipping her entire collection (perhaps 800 volumes) to my home in London. But my apartment — small and bereft of shelving — was already overwhelmed by reading material. More important, not all these books had been of value to her, including potboilers she’d hidden behind rows of classics. And the academic tomes would be better in the hands of experts.
I phoned charities to donate, if only they would kindly pick them up, because I was visiting the capital and had no car. None agreed. One offered grandly to let me deliver the books at a certain hour, at which point they’d sort through them, and send me away with those they didn’t care for.
I tried used bookshops next, offering them for nothing. I explained the situation: I just wanted homes for my sister’s books. “The owner’s gonna call you back,” one store clerk said. He never did.
I tried another store. “I’ll box up the books,” I offered. “I’ll wait for your delivery truck.” Nope. “If I rented a vehicle and brought them to your store?” They told me I had to trek to a warehouse somewhere far away in Maryland; my offer seemed like a hassle to them.
With time running out before my departure, I hired a removal company that promised to donate the books to the local Goodwill charity. I recoiled at the sight from her fourth-floor window: movers tossing boxes of Emily’s books onto an open-backed truck.
I kept about 250 volumes. The books sat on the floor behind me in my study, piled where my girlfriend and I had spent two afternoons writing “Emily Rachman” in the front of each, to ensure that they never just dissolve into my collection.
Months passed before I could alphabetize hers among mine. My study remained impassable with Emily’s books. I devoted myself exclusively to reading as many as I could — an imagined dialogue, as happens whenever books are borrowed, one reader hearing the perceptions of who preceded.
I dipped into her Maupassant short stories and “Droll Stories” by Balzac. I finished “Eating the Dinosaur” by Chuck Klosterman and “The Executioner’s Song” by Norman Mailer. I re-read “84 Charing Cross Road” by Helene Hanff, not intending to, but unable to stop after the opening page. I went through “Learned Optimism” by the psychologist Martin Seligman, a family friend who dedicated this copy on Sept. 14, 2011: “For Emily, with high hopes.”
Once, a successful novelist took me aside after dinner. We had been talking about death, although I can’t remember why — possibly an offshoot of an exchange about poems. As if confiding a secret, speaking softly so other diners might not hear, he said: “We, as writers, get a bit of immortality. We live on in our books.”
Emily never wrote a book. She would have; I know that. Indeed, for months before she died, she had been working on an anthology of food in great literature. A book on Afghanistan was possible, too. And more still on whatever else she would have pursued, her life being a whoosh of activity, and sure to go on in that surprising fashion, had she lived beyond 40.
When I left her apartment, the built-in bookshelves were empty but for the dust. What, I wonder, have the new owners placed there? Books? Something else altogether? They’ll never know the jubilation those shelves once brought to a young woman.