Books were my closest friends in Brunswick. I had moved to the neighborhood in Melbourne on little more than a whim, one foot still in the closet. I was chasing a place I’d imagined would be full of other queer people, which would obviously solve all my problems immediately.
I thought if I just kept moving, like a shark, I couldn’t possibly be so sad, because surely I would find something that would fix it. But what I found was a 9-to-5 in a soulless office where I spent 8 hours a day alone in a dark room, methodically photographing decrepit old books from the National Library of Australia, submitting them as files to a cold warehouse full of blinking servers where they could live on digitally forever.
When I got off work I wandered Brunswick alone and usually ended up at the local library. It was a historic building with the sign “Brunswick Town Hall” left across the top, gutted by modern sliding glass doors that whooshed open automatically and long skinny fluorescent lights that hung from high ceilings.
At the back wall was a massive mural, a scene of antiquity — an angel playing a harp, a cherub, some guy who looked like Shakespeare — painted over with characters from another language, bright yellow dots, and modern geometric shapes.
Usually I would find a chair in a corner somewhere and read poetry books. Once I was reading The First Bad Man by Miranda July and laughed out loud so unexpectedly, I got up and left, a self-punishment for disturbing the sacred silence of the stacks. Most of the time I stuffed my backpack full of my paper treasures and went home to curl up in bed with them.
Inside books, I didn’t have to think about my loneliness so much. I was too depressed to do anything but fill my head with other people’s words, too exhausted to leave the house.
It was the first time since childhood that I had read so much. There was a library near the house where I grew up, next to the public swimming pool where I begrudgingly participated on the local swim team. The water was cold, and I was weird, and competition stressed me out. But I could always walk across the parking lot to the library, through those whooshing doors, and find the row where my favorite series of horse books lived.
I would sit on the floor cross-legged and run my eyes across every spine, needing to read every title to be sure I didn’t miss anything good, feeling a rush of pleasure at this breathless task, a surge of ecstasy when I found something interesting and plucked it from the shelf in triumph, adding it to my stack of books to take home.
An anxious child that someone definitely should have put in therapy, every night before I got into bed I planned what I would read. This was how I kept the intrusive thoughts away, those things I didn’t have a name for then. I just knew instinctively that if I didn’t give my mind something to chew on, it would take me to frightening places in the dark. I would fall asleep whenever the words started to blur together and my hand could no longer hold the heavy pages open.
When we got a computer in 1997, I sat in front of it for hours at a time, typing up my own stories. I made up friends and characters to replace the ones I didn’t have, but as I grew up and studied people, I started to understand the strategies of socializing. I wanted to collect friends like I had collected books, and figure out all the ways I could make people like me. One of those ways not telling people I’d competed in the state spelling bee twice — another was spending less time alone, reading.
In high school I found that drugs could be a practical replacement for books, another category of things I could study and collect, another easy remedy for my harried mind. In a way, they were a social badge of honor — I knew things other teenagers didn’t, I tried things they never had, and I was too high to give a fuck.
Drugs led to parties and relationships and a variety of strange lives abroad that maybe I will tell you more about one day. I barely read any books for most of my 20’s, until drugs stopped working, and the sadness crept back in, and I moved to Melbourne, hoping to run faster than it could get me.
One day in my dark room with my ancient texts, taking a break from the brain-liquefying monotony of archiving by curling up on the floor (as you do), I was texting about books with a friend who lived in Thailand. “Do you know about libgen?” he asked, and sent me a link.
It’s referred to as a “shadow library”, a controversial aspect of the open access movement that seeks to make knowledge freely accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world, but especially in the Global South, and especially for people outside academia.
Academic publishing giants like Elsevier, whose profit margin is even higher than Apple, have been trying to shut these shadow libraries down for a while, but in the last few years, even major universities have begun to cancel their subscriptions in protest. A band-aid for the larger issue of knowledge privatization, shadow libraries untether researchers from institutions.
But back to me and my problems. Distressed in the city, I made a very normal and not at all drastic choice and took a job at a luxury truckstop (they had a pool, it’s a thing). This combination motel, restaurant, and only liquor store for 100 miles was located off the lone highway that runs through Australia’s Northern Territory — 520,000 square miles of desert that just a little more than the population of Boise, Idaho call home.
Unfortunately, the tight-knit group of snobs who worked there did not like my jokes, so I only lasted a week. They dropped me and my backpack off unceremoniously in the nearest town, but were nice enough to introduce me to the owner of another, less luxurious motel/bar/liquor store who had just happened to lose one of their bartender/waiter/housekeepers (also, a thing).
I was bewildered, alone, and a 16-hour bus ride from the nearest international airport. The first thing I did was find the local library. It was one small room with a couch and a table and a dedicated UFO section, with giant windows that opened onto the beautiful red dirt and the blue, blue sky of the outback. I poured beer and made beds from 7-to-9 and was generally too busy to feel how sad I still was, but in my rare time off, I would go sit on the floor next to the racks in that tiny library and hunt for books.
When my visa ran out, I left Australia to do a very long mountain trek with a very good friend, one who is never in the same place for long but reads even more voraciously than I do. Everybody said nature and exercise were the cures for sadness, so I thought maybe this would do the trick.
My friend and I spent many hours on that trip laying next to each other in silence, reading sci-fi/fantasy ebooks on our phones, until one of us inevitably turned to the other and asked, “Are you hungry?” (It goes without saying, but I will say it: this is the perfect friendship.)
Mountain-trekking was a beautiful and formative experience, the hardest thing I’ve ever done and probably the most rewarding, but unfortunately, none of it made me less sad. At best, it just distracted me while the situation inside my head got worse. A psychiatrist told me I had a disorder, so I moved back to Florida and told my mom I was gay.
I always hated the place where I grew up, a sprawling land of golf courses and open-air malls which I call (unaffectionately) swampburbia. But in a sadistic twist of fate, it turned out I didn’t need to go to the other side of the world to figure myself out — I needed to go back home.
On my 28th birthday, I went to a gay bar called Cruisers and perched on a stool alone. By the end of the night, I knew everyone’s name (people love to take me under their wings, for some reason) and I knew that I needed to embrace the queer kid inside me that I’d been trying to flee.
I went on Tinder, which I generally don’t recommend, but when I opened my heart to chaos, I was rewarded with a great love. They were from upstate New York, but had grown up visiting their grandparents a few blocks away from the house that I grew up in, and that library by the pool. We imagined our childhood selves crossing paths unbeknownst at the local 7/11, or making sand castles on the same beach.
The sadness had been, until this point, something I dealt with entirely alone, but they were the first person who read books to me in bed when I could not stop crying. Years later (because they are a Scorpio, and thus have many secrets), I found out they’re dyslexic and actually hate reading — acts of service, truly.
We took our relationship to the next level (read: got a dog) and moved to DC, where I got to add a card at the Library of Congress to my prized collection. But then the pandemic happened, and all the libraries closed, and I stopped going outside.
Curled up on a chaise lounge in our basement apartment, I started collecting ePub files and PDFs on my tablet, highlighting and making notes like a mad scientist formulating a grand theory. Yes, I love the smell of a printed page as much as the next bookworm, but I am not a dinosaur; I adapt or I die. With nowhere to go and almost every book I could ever read available in my hand, I’ve spent the last year inhaling words at an unnatural rate.
But the best part, my favorite part, is dumping all the words I collect on other people. They burst out the seams of me, spilling over onto anyone near enough to hear them, pouring into content on the internet. They fill the shelves of my mind but they do not want to collect dust. A library no one visits is a tragedy; a stack aches to be consulted.
Quarantine was a break from the horrible world of work/life balance, the likes of which I hadn’t known since I was a kid on summer vacation, eating lemon italian ices during an afternoon thunderstorm. Many people withered without workplaces or daily social interactions, but in solitude, with my books, I bloomed like a plant that had finally been fed. The sadness became a shell of its former self — no longer a constant tinnitus of the soul, but an infrequent clang that still hurt my ears sometimes, yet faded quickly.
“Have you thought more about dating other people?” my partner asked recently on a rare date, in the awkward post-vaccination lull between mask mandates that made us temporarily feel okay going to a restaurant. We were sitting at a bar with two different burgers between us, cut in half and swapped. We liked to try new things, and sharing was the best way to do it.
It was a question that had hung above our relationship since the first date, a place we’d always met philosophically but hadn’t yet visited together, practically. But the world was opening up, slowly, and the question was resurfacing more and more.
I thought back to all the years I’d sacrificed reading for a social life, all the time I spent trying to be what other people wanted so they would like me, all the parties and the drugs — I have sown my wild oats, as they say, and it just doesn’t sound that interesting anymore. I’d been running for so long, but returning to books felt like finally coming home to myself. I’m ready to let the words take me.
“I don’t know if I have time,” I replied, “I just have so many books to read.”