A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe. ~Madeleine L’Engle
There is more than one pile like this scattered throughout my house. Books I got for Christmas or my birthday, ones I’ve ordered for myself, others that I remembered and recovered from a shelf because I was gripped with a sudden longing to read it for the first time or again.
I started A Path With Heart almost 20 years ago, when I first got interested in meditation and Buddhist philosophy, but only made it through the first four chapters. It has sat on the shelf for so long that although the cover is a deep soft pink, the spine is faded to gray. It has waited for me all those years, and just now I feel finally ready for it.
Most of the books in these piles are as of yet unread. I am a bibliophile, a writer, and an avid reader, but I haven’t been able to keep up. As I mentioned in my dreamboard, I am hungry for reading. I am trying to go to bed a half hour earlier to give myself more time for it. And today, on this day of rest, I promised myself an hour or two of reading.
I thought this would be a short post, a quick point about the preciousness of reading, my intention to do more of it, but then I remembered a literacy narrative I wrote years ago, and have revised over the years since, and I am compelled to share part of it with you here, now.
Books have been an essential and enduring part of my life. Initially, they were bright colors and mysterious pictures, objects that I tried to understand through how they felt in my mouth or the sounds I could make by tearing the pages. Later, I was mesmerized by the way my mom turned these colorful squares into story and song. Eventually I understood that the letters, what had seemed to be accidental groupings of the ABCs that she taught me to sing meant something. The stories were there in the letters. And finally, my mom revealed the most amazing thing of all, that what she was doing, this act of magic was called reading, that she would teach it to me and I would eventually be able to do it, all… by… myself.
The first book I remember is Boo Who Used to Be Scared of the Dark. It was written by Munro Leaf and published in 1948. I don’t know where the book came from. My mom could have bought it at a garage sale, or my aunt and godmother Cecilia, who was a reading teacher that lived overseas with my uncle who was a pilot in the Air Force, could have sent it to me. There is a blurry, faded spot inside its cover, at the top corner of the first page, where the price was penciled in and then erased. It’s old enough that I know it didn’t come to me new.
I wasn’t old enough to read, in fact I was barely old enough to talk, so my mom read Boo’s story to me. I know it was a favorite, because when we got a cat, shiny black and skinny, I named it “BoBo,” which at the time was as close as I could get to Boo. Boo wasn’t even the name of the cat in the book, but rather the little boy who lived with the cat. Boo, a blue-eyed, blond haired little boy who was afraid of the dark, (and bugs, mice, frogs, snakes, thunderstorms, and dogs —practically everything), until Alexander the cat, his best friend who wasn’t scared of anything, taught him not to be.
“What are you laughing about?” asked his mother.
And Boo said, “I’m laughing because I’ve learned never to be scared in the dark again.”
Then Boo’s father saw Alexander sitting on the bed.
“Why, Alexander,” he said, “what are you doing up here out of the kitchen?”
And Alexander answered with the only word he ever said when grown-ups were around and that was just—
I don’t know for sure exactly what it was about this book that I liked so much. I know that I was scared of the dark as a kid, so maybe this book reminded me that there was nothing to be afraid of. Maybe I liked the idea that animals would secretly talk to kids. Maybe it was the illustrations, brightly colored and vividly drawn. I was too young and that was too long ago to be sure why, and yet, when I look at it now–the spine torn, the edges of the pages dirty and smelling of mildew, the corners of the cover worn away–I can tell it’s been loved. It is nostalgia in physical form, keeping its place of honor on my adult bookshelf along with the novels by Margaret Atwood, plays by Shakespeare, scary stories by Stephen King, scads of science fiction and fantasy novels, a small library of books about writing, a collection of memoirs and various books on Buddhism. I see it there and I value it. My eyes pause on its cover, Boo smiling and Alexander with a bright red ribbon tied around his neck, and I remember. I long for everything that it represents; innocence, childhood, family—a simple story that is repeated again and again, a story that you think will never end.
I vividly remember those first innocent days of stories, the hope and dreams that they inspired. As I sat in the painted tree house loft inside Mrs. Heilbronner’s 2nd grade classroom, the walls faded away, the tree turned real, and I became a part of the stories I read. I used every extra minute to read everything I could. I would start with the book at the left end of a shelf and work my way right, reading every one. Sometimes, I recognized things from my own life in the stories I read. Other times, I learned about things that I never could have imagined. Because of books my world was limitless. I could go anywhere and be anybody.
As a fourth grader, I read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl for the first time. When she made her first entry in her diary, Anne was four years older than when I first read it, but there was something about Anne’s voice that seemed to come from inside my own head. She was so much like me. She loved books and movies, had one older sibling, wanted to grow up and marry and have children and to be an actress or a writer, she was independent and stubborn but also sensitive, she felt like no one who knew her really knew her, that no one saw her true self. She wrote in her diary because “I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart.”
I identified with Anne’s isolation and her hope for the future. And even at that young age, it was becoming clear to me that for every person like Anne, full of hope and possibility, there was another full of pain and anger. And at times, all four qualities could crowd inside a single person. We all suffered, and intentionally or not, we would cause others to suffer as well.
I’ve read this book many times over the years. Every time, I brace myself for the disappointment that I think will come because I never believe that the actual book can possibly match my precious remembered experience of it. I expect that it won’t be nearly as moving or meaningful—but it is, every time. And every time, my heart breaks again—that we as humans can be both so wonderful and so horrible.
We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become. ~Ursula K. Le Guin
Please excuse me now, kind and gentle reader–I have a hot date with a book or two.