“Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves. How could it be otherwise?”
I was going to write about love this month (I always think I’m going to write about love), so off I went in search of a book of essays by Bertrand Russell in which I remembered reading his thoughts on love. (I believe Russell thought a lot about love—as do I—when he wasn’t busy formulating the logic of mathematics.) While searching for that particular book, I came upon Anne Fadiman’s charming collection of essays, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. Some of you more organized book lovers will note that Anne Fadiman and Bertrand Russell are not typically near one another on most bookshelves—whether they be organized alphabetically, chronologically, by subject matter, or by country of origin—which speaks to my out-of-control, random shelving system and my daily frustration with finding the book I want. What I usually find instead, though, is the book I need—a book that immediately relieves my frustrations.
Books have a wickedly strong gravitational pull, which is why my bookshelves are dusty. Here in Escalante, where the spring winds are mighty and bare dirt is plentiful and air-conditioning consists of opening and closing the windows at the appropriate times, the books are practically speaking in unison: “Why bother? Put down the dust rag. Pick me up instead.” My mind quickly does a cost/benefit calculation; dusting has never come out ahead.
Books that have once stunned me with their simple beauty are the books most likely to reach from the shelves and graze my hand with ethereal fingers. Fadiman’s book is one of those. When I saw the faded green spine of its jacket, I experienced a subtle flush of delight. I extracted the book and backed into the nearest chair where I spent the next hour in quiet bliss.
Book lovers tend to cling to their books. They hoard books. They believe that floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are furniture. They are art. They are beauty. They provide warmth and security and comfort. Companionship. Joy. Sadness. Love. Sentimentality. Familiarity. Longing. A stirring in the gut. An opening of the heart.
I recently witnessed a spontaneous book-loving competition on facebook when a friend lamented that she had to schlep twenty boxes of books to a new house or trim the shelves. The responses went something like this: “Only twenty boxes? I moved fifty boxes three times in two years!” “Only fifty boxes? I moved seventy-five boxes from coast-to-coast twice!” “Only seventy-five boxes? We had to rent two trucks—one just for our books alone!” And so forth. I, of course, filled a semi-truck and trailer to move my books to Escalante.
In all sincerity, I can attest to the unpleasantness of moving books. Friends will help you move those books once and only once. Any second or third moving date will conflict with a surprising number of travel plans and relatives in town. Family members, however, cannot slip away so easily. My husband’s son, Jackson, has helped move our books numerous times. He responds in the same way each time, “fucking books,” and then gets to work. He’s also a lover of the written word, but he has a remarkably healthy detachment to material objects. I believe he can carry most, if not all, of his material possessions in a single backpack. He did not learn his healthy detachment from his father.
When Steve and I moved in together eight years ago, we both came with books. In her essay, “Marrying Libraries,” Fadiman writes of the treacherous territory a couple enters when attempting to merge books. Steve and I have tried to trim the collection several times and have failed. We found some duplicates among Ed Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and E.O. Wilson, but because we are both margin scribblers, giving up “my” copy of a duplicate meant emotional severance for one or the other of us. I’m glad we failed to thin the stacks. After eight years, I’m just beginning to wallow in his books of philosophy, theology, eco-psychology, and he’s just beginning to explore my books of fiction and creative nonfiction. Through the years, our books have shared the same messy shelves—we are equally slothful book filers—but they maintain his and hers designation. Every so often we come upon a book that we both lay claim to. I consider that divorce prevention.
We were drawn to our house in Escalante because of its many large windows and abundance of natural light. Great reading spaces, we thought. It wasn’t until we got here with books and shelves in tow that we realized windows take up wall space. We’ve yet to find a remedy for this—we currently live among books stacked upon the floor and when they get in the way, we move them to another part of the floor, adding to the chaos of finding the book we want and contributing to the joy of stumbling upon a book we’ve forgotten.
All book lovers have emotional attachments—verging on mental illness—to their books. When a book lover brushes by the shelves on her way out of the room, familiar spines catch her eye, and a thin smile touches her face. Without awareness, her fingers stroke the spines and memories flutter through her mind and body. There are the books that got me through my divorce—the entire Harry Potter series; Midnight’s Children shared the couch with me through five winter days of the flu; the slim, bumpy one, Here is New York, fell into a creek and was dried out on a rock; the green one with a missing jacket and yellowed pages, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, belonged to my mother and still smells like her.
Those books share space with books that have not yet been read. It’s a quirk of mine—maybe a character deficiency—that I refuse to read books when there’s a lot of hubbub surrounding them. The chitter-chatter takes away from my own experience, makes the reading too impersonal, too “groupy,” and I’m apparently unable to ignore it. So I like to give it ten or twenty years then circle back around when others have moved on (and when I can buy the book for 75 cents in a used bookstore), which might be why I usually find myself sheepishly answering “no” to the question, “Have you read . . .?” (I feel the same way about movies. One of these days, I’m going to watch “Titanic.”) Those unread books tucked in among the well-read books provide me a great deal of comfort—they’ll be there when life becomes catastrophic. When all hell breaks lose, I’ll take one of those books off the shelf, sit down under a reading lamp, and I’ll be fine while the world crumbles around me.
Book lovers’ opinions vary broadly in the area of accepted treatment of a book. I have no shame in the treatment of books—I’ll scribble in their margins, turn down their pages, and crack open their spines. I once had a plain gray sweatshirt that I deeply loved, and I wore it until it fell off my body. When I see a book that is falling apart from so much use, I think, “that book is well-loved.” Others think the opposite. A friend once said that she loaned a book to someone who returned it with a cracked spine. My friend was appalled and devastated. Needless to say, she never loaned a book to me.
Upon completion of a good book, the reader experiences what feels like a small death. You want to linger in the book’s world a bit longer so you leave it on the coffee table for several weeks after you’ve read the last page—it seems wrong to reshelf it and be done. Moving on to another book is like getting another cat after old Whiskers died—it might be good advice, but one needs to move slowly. Otherwise, that kitten, that new book, is annoying as hell, and you long for the one that’s gone. When I finished Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, I tried to read The Fool’s Progress by Ed Abbey. After the first fifteen pages, I began to have violent fantasies about gouging Abbey’s eyes out (speaking metaphorically, of course). I wanted Henry Lightcap’s grumpy, raspy voice out of my head and the lyrical beauty of Bel Canto back in. Apparently, I had moved on too soon. After I finished Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, I read through several issues of old Harper’s and The Sun magazines before I could ease myself into another book.
In the spirit of de-cluttering my strewn-about books—or at least not piling on the clutter—I purchased a Kindle and tried to talk myself into loving it. But I don’t. At first, because I live in a town without a bookstore or a library, I liked the immediate access to “books” that Kindle gave me, and I could certainly see the advantage of traveling with ten books on one slim device. But I hate reading on it. As many anti-ebookers before me have pointed out, reading a book is more than a visual experience.
Book lovers love the weight of a book in their hands, as if they are holding the world created inside the book. A slim book holds the promise of carefully selected words, of simple yet weighty words of passion and meaning. A fat book holds the promise of a deep and rich world that will sustain the reader for days. Readers love the smell of a book, they love the sound of turning pages, they love brushing a hand over the cover and wondering about the design and color choice. I miss all of that when I read on a Kindle. “Oh, you’ll get used to it,” people tell me, but I don’t believe them and here’s why: After three years, I still miss reading a morning newspaper, and if I could get one in my town, I would happily eat my breakfast with newsprint-stained fingers. “I get my news online!” people say as if that’s something that hadn’t occurred to me. When I tell them I like to read a newspaper rather than a screen, they say, “Oh, you’ll get used to it.” How long might that take? I am beginning to doubt that I have enough years ahead of me to get used to an electronic world even if I had a desire. And I don’t. That’s not to say that I won’t use the electronic world when it suits me—but I reserve the right to complain about it.
The thing I hate most about reading on a Kindle is the lack of a full two pages of text in front of me. To get even one full page would require text the size of a needle tip. I feel like a child when I read on my Kindle. Here’s a paragraph for you to read. Now’s here’s the next one. And when you’re finished with those you can have another. There’s no scanning allowed—not backward or forward—because there’s not enough text available to scan. It’s like working for the federal government—you will be given information on a need-to-know basis. I can’t even have a page number, and since I can’t judge the book by it’s weight—all books weigh the same on a Kindle—I can’t feel the book. Instead of page numbers, I’m given a percentage, as if I’m being graded on my ability to proceed through the book—25%, now 38%, keep working and you’ll get 100%! You passed!
And how does one stumble upon a forgotten book on the tiny bookshelves of the e-world? How does one recall the childhood year spent yearning for a talking pig after reading Charlotte’s Web or the spontaneous tears months after reading Where the Red Fern Grows if not through the nearness of the physical object? Those might be the thoughts of a sentimental fool, but I believe those things matter in a life. A friend who recently set out on a trip with her young children sent out a call for suggestions for iPad apps to keep the children engaged while traveling. I was saddened by that. Gone are the days when a child falls deeply into the pages of a book for hours, for days, for a lifetime.
I have a single pine board that serves as a bookshelf in my writing shed. Steve pulled it out of the scrap-wood pile to construct a fence around the garden, a purpose it served grandly for two years before I pulled it from the garden to use as a bookshelf. It usually holds three or four dozen books, the titles of which change often depending on my moods and my needs. But a few books remain here permanently, within easy reach, to remind me of what life is and what life is not. To remind me that I cannot live according to the expectations of others. To remind me that integrity to a life is all that matters. To remind me that I should never be careful. To remind me that obedience is for children not for adults. To remind me that today is a good day to die and, therefore, a good day to live. To remind me that life is finite, as is the earth’s ability to support human life. To remind me that humans have lived without oil and cars and planes and electricity but they have never lived without water and clean air and non-toxic food. To remind me that the earth is 4.5 billion years old and the anatomically modern human is about 200,000 years old and the odds are pretty damn good that the earth will out-survive us. To remind me that there’s a difference between hopefulness and delusion. To remind me that hopefulness and hopelessness are not the only choices. To remind me that I cannot end suffering. To remind me to live in benign presence.
Two books linger on this shelf, always within reach: Blood Orchid and Blues for Cannibals both written by Charles Bowden. They are horrific in their raw brutality and heartbreaking in their lustful splendor. They will not let one shy away from the cruelty of human toward human, human toward animal, human toward earth. Nor will they let one turn away from the throbbing life of hummingbirds, honeysuckle, paloverde, salvia, bush hackberry, and the brazen, sensual night-blooming cereus. I’ll leave you with a few disturbingly candid lines to ponder from Blood Orchid:
“Imagine the problem is not physical. Imagine the problem has never been physical, that it is not biodiversity, it is not the ozone layer, it is not the greenhouse effect, the whales, the old-growth forest, the loss of jobs, the crack in the ghetto, the abortions, the tongue in the mouth, the diseases stalking everywhere as love goes on unconcerned. Imagine the problem is not some syndrome of our society that can be solved by commissions or laws or a redistribution of what we call wealth. Imagine it goes deeper, right to the core of what we call our civilization and that no one outside of ourselves can effect real change, that our civilization, our governments are sick and that we are mentally ill and spiritually dead and that all our issues and crises are symptoms of this deeper sickness. Imagine that the problem is not that we are powerless or that we are victims but that we have lost the fire and belief and courage to act. We hear whispers of the future but we slap our hands against our ears, we catch glimpses but turn our faces swiftly aside . . . Imagine the problem is that we cannot imagine a future where we possess less but are more. Imagine the problem is a future that terrifies us because we lose our machines but gain our feet and pounding hearts.”
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