Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Books Are Alive

An interesting phenomenon happens every time I pack up and move.

When I left for college, I took with me my favorite books and a few I hadn't had a chance to read yet. They fit unobtrusively into the nooks and crannies of a laundry basket otherwise filled to the brim with odd bits like hangers, pillows, and over very old, very loved teddy bear.

As my freshman year wore on, the books claimed more and more territory along the back of my desk, and by the time I moved away a few months ago, I was leaving behind three full bookcases of novels and hoarded textbooks.

In packing for Idaho, I was even more selective in choosing which books would come. Since I had no idea how much room I would have, and because everything I was taking had to fit in the bed of my truck, I brought only the books I thought I couldn't get by without. Along came the compiled novels of Jane Austen, paperbacks of The Lord of the Rings, one book that was a gift from my brother, a few church books, and Harry Potter en español (though I limited myself to the four I hadn't finished yet).

Just since I arrived a little over three months ago, my collection has multiplied until I'm not sure where I would fit even one more book on the little shelf I have for them. I even gave in and shelved them all two deep!

I'm coming to believe my library is a living organism constantly undergoing mitosis. It's like a fungus or tribbles or troll meat. (For your convenience, those references were arranged in ascending order of nerdiness.)

I almost wish I could be exasperated with myself, but I'm too fond of books to really mind. Besides, who would I skip?

My latest additions were all absolutely necessary. Working at the library has its perks. The other day, I came home with an armful of books, not a one of which was printed more recently than 1954. Who am I to say no to such a beautiful copy of one of my favorite works?

It even smells divine.

Going through all the old books the other day, I started remembering the books my mom had while I was growing up. I always loved the oldest best (most especially a chunky, faded blue volume of children's poetry). I didn't always read them or even know what they were about, but they were so gorgeous and smelled so nice. I've loved that smell longer than I can remember. As I was picking out the books I wanted a few days ago, I kept imagining my children falling in love with these same old copies, exploring the shelves as if they were a misty jungle ripe for discovery, as I once did with my mother's books. I can imagine them treasuring the yellowed pages and old typeface, breathing in that exotic smell like oxygen.

I'm excited to someday see all my books reunited, gathered in from Missouri and Arizona and Idaho, and wherever else the Lord decides to send me. I don't even know how many I have! I'd like to see my library someday, that part of my dream life where I live in that little house with the pale walls and the big windows, surrounded by the books that, in their way, chronicle my whole life.

In the meantime, I'm amused at having a transcontinental library. Now, where am I going to put that next book?

Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Reading and Writing

A few days ago, I read a whole book, start to finish, all 344 pages. (It was a YA book called Alienated, if you're wondering.) It's been a long time since I've devoured a book like that. That summer in Hamilton before I started my junior year, when the only people I knew in town were the librarian and Eli Green (who spent most of the summer working on his dreadlocks under the gaze of a wax statue of James Cash Penney), is the last time I have a clear memory of spending each day with a new book, the sun streaming in my window until that final stretch when only lamplight will do and there's no turning back, only pressing on until you hit cover.

Reading so voraciously has always had two effects on me.

First, the best books leave their voices in my mind. Whenever I read, say, Shakespeare or Austen or Dickens, really read them, lose myself in them, it's like I've been speaking a foreign language for a while, and it takes my brain a few hours or days to lose the accent. Like that semester in college when I took a solid three hours of Spanish on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I always thought in Spanish for the rest of the afternoon. I love this side effect of reading. The world seems a little grander when it all turns into Shakespeare in your head, the edges of everything gilt in a special glow.

The second effect of reading so much is that I think about writing more. Like how browsing through DeviantArt always makes me itch to draw.

I used to define myself by reading and by the desire to write. Looking back, I never actually did write much, though. Some poems in high school, the opening paragraphs of a dozen different stories that never seemed to survive conception. I did write a lot of essays throughout my academic career. I prided myself on writing them all last minute, exulting in the self-perceived elegance of my thrown together turns of phrase. "Look at the beauty of this thing I made! It took me no time at all! Envy my apparent natural talent!"

How foolish! How conceited! Recently, I've begun to fear that what modest talent I may have had has wilted beyond revival due to neglect. There's also the lurking apprehension that maybe in curing my hurts, I cured the poetry in me, too. I don't know how my recipients feel about them, but I'm even dissatisfied with the letters I write. My journal entries all quickly devolve into triteness and redundancy, which, though private, still leave me somehow disappointed in myself. I crave a kind of classic, graceful beauty in my phraseology. Am I unrealistically yearning for some literary star?

I used to write for the attention, or to express some painful emotion. I don't need that anymore. Now, I'm wondering if I can still write without insecurity as my motivation. Can my writing still be beautiful, even poetic?

I don't know.

Let's find out.