There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –
(“There is no Frigate like a Book” (1286), By Emily Dickinson, 1830-86)
We had a new carpet installed in our living room this past week—a welcome change from the old one, faded and worn from the constant foot traffic to the outside deck. It meant, however, that all the furniture had to be moved out of the room, and first, all the bookshelves and cabinets had emptied. As wearisome as it was, I welcomed the task. I’ve intended to sift through the dozens of books that have occupied the bookcases since we moved here, so when my husband hurriedly began re-shelving volumes after the installation was complete, I protested.
“I want to downsize my books,” I said. “Let me do the re-shelving.”
Since the majority of the books are ones I’ve collected over the years, he agreed to leave me to the task of sorting and ordering. That was four days ago. I finished only last night, back aching, but the shelves neatly filled with my favorites, poetry in one area, novels or nonfiction in another, art books on the bottom shelves, and so on. Nearby, a large pile of discards waited to be boxed and donated—many that had been transported from house to house, country to country to end up here, in our California home.
“Why have you kept so many for so long?” My husband is less attached to his books than I am, the majority of his given to the university when he retired.
“These books are like chapters of my life,” I said. “I remember the stories, favorite passages and how they represented who I was becoming, what I was feeling and thinking at the time.”
Re-shelving took far more time than I anticipated. With one book after another, I paused and sat down to page through them, all the while remembering the period a particular book came into my life. There is the thick volume of e.e.cummings’ Complete Poems, its cover frayed and taped, pages dog-eared and marked by notes written in my hand. I remember how I longed to have the volume so many years ago, and after a business trip to Boston, my first husband returned with it, a gift to me barely a year before his death. In Alistair MacLeod’s Island, I recalled the years we lived in Cape Breton, the harshness of the long winters, and the loneliness I felt as a young mother. Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem and Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning Angle of Repose once filled me with longing for the western landscape I’d left behind after we moved to Canada. A half-dozen of Maurice Sendak’s wonderfully illustrated children’s books were favorites to read aloud to my daughters. I took solace in William Stafford’s The Way It Is and the wisdom in his poetry during the deaths of my parents and any remaining familial closeness. My books, I realized, provided a sense of stability, of something solid and tangible during periods of upheaval and personal transition. Hours passed with little re-shelving accomplished as I paused to sit and page through favorite books, all the while remembering what it was like to be me.
“Without books how could I have become myself?” Sharon Lynn Schwartz asked her book, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books (1996), a meditation on why we read and how what we read shapes us. Schwartz reminds us how books we read can be formative, serving as touchstones and guides throughout our lives. It’s why those of us who love books tend to give them as gifts, she says, just as one gives love or intimate information: “Here, read this; it is in my mind; it affected the way I breathed.”
When I was a child, books were magical. I was thirsty to learn and escape into worlds and adventures of imagination and story. Books fed not only my mind, but my soul as well. They instilled the reverence I felt in the quiet of the local library and the musty, papery smell of treasured books lining shelf after shelf. I cannot imagine a life without books. Although I now read fiction on my kindle; it’s not the same. I miss the feel of a book in my hands, the ability to turn down a page and return to it, the solidity of a paper book in a world that is increasingly fast-paced and dependent upon technology. It’s why, I suspect, that the many books that continue to line my bookshelves will again be lovingly boxed up and transported whenever we find ourselves moving to another home.
I could never have dreamt that there were such goings-on
in the world between the covers of books,
such sandstorms and ice blasts of words,
such staggering peace, such enormous laughter,
such and so many blinding bright lights, splashing all over the pages
in a million bits and pieces
all of which were words, words, words,
and each of which were alive forever
in its own delight and glory and oddity and light.
(Dylan Thomas, [essay] Notes on the Art of Poetry)
Do you have favorite books that you’ve kept long after first reading them? What books held particular meaning for you during your childhood or during a period of challenge and upheaval? What did they offer to you than you needed at the time? Write about a book or books that shaped you, ones that you hold dear, ones that ignite memories and stories each time you take it from your shelf.