Beautiful Books

I’ve moved a lot. And on every move, I’ve gotten some version  of  “Have you ever heard of a Kindle?” from the movers as they hoist heavy book box after heavy book box. Yes! I have a Kindle, and it’s great. It’s especially great when I want to download the latest Tana French murder mystery. Or when I find myself without a book, I love that I can get on my library’s website and find something to read. Voila! There it is on my Kindle. Instant gratification!

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But physical books will never be absent from my life. Ever since I was a small child learning to read, books have held an almost spiritual quality for me. Indeed, some of my fondest memories are of books. Not even necessarily the reading of the books—which was of course important—but the mere presence of the books. For I learned at a young age that books were not just about stories or learning. They were promise. The very embodiment of hope. For within its pages—if you picked up the right book—you could experience transcendence.

I blame/thank my parents for this. My father did a marvelous job acting out the voices in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories when we were little. I was a Little House on the Prairie devotee, voraciously absorbing every last word of those stories. My mom also introduced me to Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy, Tacy, and Tib books, which she had loved as a kid. I was amazed at the ability of these stories to place me in a world that was so far removed from my own by time and space. They utterly captivated my imagination. When I was living in Minnesota many years later, we took a pilgrimage to Mankato to visit Maud Hart Lovelace’s home. I don’t have any of her books anymore, but I bought a mug on my trip that serves as a pleasant reminder of that pilgrimage and the magic of those wonderful books.

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I was fortunate as a kid to travel a lot, and my parents often found a way to make those trips literary. We visited Shakespeare’s home at Stratford-upon-Avon. I was a Shakespeare fan from an early age, since I had somehow managed to convince my parents to let me watch Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet as a three-year-old after which point I become infatuated with all things Shakespeare. I remember being very excited and buying my first camera on that trip to record my visit to this hallowed place.

Later, when we were living in the Midwest, my family took a vacation in the plains and mountains of Nebraska, Montana, and Wyoming. We visited the homestead of Willa Cather, one of my mother’s favorite authors. She bought each of us kids a copy of My Antonia and plucked a wildflower to press in its pages. She wrote in the cover of mine, “For Ellen for someday.” For obvious reasons, this book is one of my most precious possessions.

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“For Ellen for someday”
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The wildflower my mother picked in the fields of Nebraska

I don’t think I realized the significance of books in my life until some point midway through college. I had decided to go to Kenyon College because I wanted to study literature. I was infatuated with the American writers of the early twentieth century, especially Hemingway and Fitzgerald. While I know it’s uncool these days to love Hemingway, especially as I woman, I can’t help it. For Whom the Bell Tolls still makes me swoon. My husband bought me a first edition from the nearby used bookstore the year before we were married, and it is another of my favorite possessions.

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In my sophomore year of college, I took a class on British Romantic poetry and felt that I had finally found people who spoke my language. Keats! Wordsworth! I still remember my passionate professor tearing up as he read us a personal letter written by Mary Shelley about the loss of a baby. He was a wonderful professor, and I shared his passion. But I also started to feel the luster of my favorite literature fading a bit as I dissected its syntax and symbolism. I read Barthes’ The Death of the Author, which made me irrationally angry. And so, I let art lure me away. Unlike literature, visual art, as my readers may know by now, is something I’m comfortable dissecting.

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I saved all of the books from my English classes in college. The Keats has gotten a lot of attention from me over the years.

Moving away from a major in English allowed books to remain pure, unadulterated magic for me. I remember going home in the summers to my parents’ house in northern Vermont. My dad had built wooden bookshelves around the chimney in the upstairs loft, and I would sit and stare at the books on those shelves. Books I had seen on my parents’ bookshelves for as long as I could remember. They were comforting and familiar. I would call my mom upstairs to help me pick a good book to get me started for the summer. Sometimes I’d return to old favorites like The Bell Jar and The Catcher in the Rye. Sometimes I’d leave my comfort zone and read fantasy. But the books were always there, waiting for me. And it was endlessly exciting. As I said above, filled with promise.

I’m happy to report that that feeling of promise continues today. My husband and I have a large combined book collection, and I feel that same sort of excitement when I turn to our shelves and look for a book I haven’t read before or that I haven’t read in a very long time.

And I’m excited to introduce my young son to the joy of books too. We’ve turned to the Greek Myths on a handful of occasions over the last year. I have the same copy that my parents read to me. When we visited Corfu one summer, my mom came prepared with appropriate books. I remember her reading us books on stargazing and the constellations and D’aulaires’ Book of  Greek Myths. She plucked a leaf off a fig tree and pressed it in the book. Imagine the flood of fond memories when I discovered this book and its perfectly preserved fig leaf last year. There are so many layers of meaning in that book, which my son calls “The Silly Stories.”

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D’aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths
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A fig leaf from Corfu

So to the movers whom I will inevitably annoy the next time I move: Yes, I have a Kindle. But I will never get rid of my books, which are a part of me.

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One thought on “Beautiful Books

  1. Simply beautiful. And, what a thrill to discover the leaves in the books your Mother placed there. You are so lucky to have had your Mother in your life–though it was not nearly long enough. I can see you in my mind’s eye curled up reading, taking it all in, and loving it! May the job of that never end.

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