I’m a writer now. And it’s been an exhausting journey to get to the point where I can say that without feeling ill. With plenty of obstacles. But I’m a writer because I’m a reader. I love books. I love the feeling of a book in my hands. The smell of a new book. Or an old book. The feeling of a beloved book with its cracked spine and loose pages. They’re all precious treasures.
But all those books have to come from somewhere. They, too, have a history. Whether it’s something discovered browsing the library shelves (or in the olden days, the card catalog) or wandering the shelves of a bookstore, they find their way to you. And some of the best stories come to you not by accident but because someone who you matter to shares them with you. Someone who sees you, sometimes in ways you don’t see yourself looks into your heart and says “I cherish this story and I want to share this piece of me with you.”
Books for my Eighth Birthday
I remember how special, how loved I felt when my (half) sister, who is thirteen years older than I am, gave me books for my eighth birthday. Everyone else gave toys and games and clothes. But Amy, who had just graduated from college a few weeks earlier, has also always been a lover of books. She knew that among all of the other gifts that a child would typically get, I would love and appreciate books.
And I did. Nearly forty years later, I still remember the two books she had picked out for me. One was a treasury of Mickey Mouse stories. It was a hardcover book, about the size of a trade paperback, with a bright red dust jacket, the color of Mickey Mouse’s shorts. I felt so very grown up when I received this gift. A dust jacket! On a book of my own. Not a library book, but a real book that belonged to me. That dust jacket made me feel so special.
The Velveteen Rabbit
The second book was a children’s book. A classic, beloved children’s book. The cover was dark brown or maroon. Perhaps mahogany. It had beautiful illustrations. And in between those covers was a story that still brings tears to my eyes. In fact, I’m typing this with a lump in my throat, blinking back tears. That copy of The Velveteen Rabbit is long gone, but the story is still with me. I get so choked up just thinking about that story that I couldn’t even read it to my own children.
And yet that story is so influential in the way I grew to understand my youngest child’s relationship with Puppy. They went everywhere and did everything together. Watching my kiddo try to teach Puppy things was a clue that whatever milestone we were growing towards would soon be met.
Their dynamic reminded me of the wisdom the Skin Horse shared with the Velveteen Rabbit: “Real isn’t how you are made… … It’s a thing that happens to you.” And in that same way, Puppy became Real to us.
All my life, I knew I was loved when I was given books.
The next year, Amy gave me another book. She gave me a gorgeous, unabridged copy of Little Women. It was gigantic and heavy. The cover was beautiful shades of muted blues and greens. The most grown up thing about it (other than its size and the sparse but beautiful illustrations) wasn’t the gold edged ecru pages. It was the bright pink ribbon bookmark sewn into the spine of the book. I had never had anything like that before. And it made the book even more special. I read that book cover to cover more times than I can count. Twirling the ribbon in between my fingers while I read. Running the satiny ribbon through my fingers as it frayed near the bottom.
I loved the weight of the book in my hands…too heavy to really hold up, it had to rest on something. It was just right, too, for reading under the covers with a flashlight. It wasn’t just the physical book itself; I fell in love with Jo March. Boldness. Fierce love. And a passion for words that would lead her to become a writer ( I had no idea that that would become my dream, too.)
Isn’t there a Scene in the Book that’s Like This?
I read the book until the edges became battered; the spine so soft the book would lay flat on a table. But then my little sister was assigned to do a book report on Little Women for school, and she wanted to borrow my copy. Any other book I would have lent her, but this one was special, and I said no. Until my mom told me I was being selfish. So I complied with my mother’s instructions to share the book with my sister. I didn’t think I’d have to remind her not to damage the book, but you can imagine the sadness and rage I felt when the book was returned to me with its lovely pink ribbon clipped, because my sister decided it was getting in her way. My beloved book was ruined. For many years, I couldn’t bear to pick it up, much less read it.
And yet it now, in all its damaged glory, lives on my bookshelf once again. That cut ribbon has become part of its story. Not a nice part; but still a part.
The Catcher in the Rye
A few years later, an older cousin, Steve, gave me his slightly battered maroon-colored paperback of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. He gave it to me because he knew that I loved books and loved to read. I began to read it, finding myself fascinated by the “grown up language” filled with swearing-words I wasn’t allowed to say, and, more importantly, that didn’t even appear in my other books. Then my parents saw me reading it.
It’s the only book my parents ever took away from me. Not permanently; just until I was a little older than ten and a half. When I was finally declared old enough to read it, it became a book I would read many times in the next few years, not understanding until long after that that it’s a story of trauma, mental illness and war, wrapped up in a coming of age novel.
It was a small gesture on Steve’s part, and yet I still remember it now. It’s my favorite memory of him, and one I shared often after his recent and very sudden passing.
Other Works by Salinger
Reading The Catcher in the Rye led to an interest in reading more of Salinger’s works, and to a stack of Salinger’s other books: Nine Stories, Franny and Zoey, Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. I didn’t realize until much later that the copies passed on to me by my favorite aunt, were from the original printing. Aunt Nancy always gave incredible gifts; special and unique things to treasure. And I was thrilled when she gave me those books from her own bookshelves.
The Handmaid’s Tale… I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
And a few years later, Aunt Nancy also passed on her copy of The Handmaid’s Tale. We were visiting their apartment for Thanksgiving, and I’d finished the book I’d brought with me. Realizing that I was kind of at loose ends, she offered me a look at the paperbacks on her bookshelf. My chemistry teacher had recently mentioned the book to me when she saw me reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Aunt Nancy was excited to share the book with me. It felt like a very serious, very grown up book. Fifteen year old me appreciated being taken seriously; not just allowed, but encouraged, to read the book. And so I picked it up, found a quiet spot and began reading. It was difficult to tear myself away for dinner, and it wasn’t long before I finished.
Books my Chemistry Teacher Gave Me
The gift of book-love doesn’t just come from family either. The same teacher who recommended The Handmaid’s Tale also encouraged me to read my very first Toni Morrison novel: Beloved. Of course I had teachers who had recommended books before, many times over the years, but not like this. Not a teacher who had nothing to do with my language arts education or my social studies education. Not a teacher whose class I struggled with the way I struggled with chemistry.
This was someone who clearly saw more than just my grade and the difficulty I had making sense of some of the things in her class. She saw my interest in social justice, my emerging feminist identity, my growing interest and involvement in political issues. (This was all taking place while Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm were going on in Kuwait and Iraq.)
Sometimes the books stay with you long after the person who has brought them into your life has left.
Neil Gaiman’s Books
Good Omens is one of those books. The person who brought the book to my life broke my spirit and crushed my dreams of being a writer, then stomped on my heart. But before that, when we were still in love, he invited me into the world of Neil Gaiman with The Sandman comics. Death: The High Cost of Living had just come out, and told the story of how Death takes a human form once a century to remain in touch with humanity.
At a time when I was struggling with depression and so was the person who shared the story with me, it’s no surprise that we both connected with the book, and with the rest of the Sandman comics. When it seemed like everyone’s favorite of the Endless was Death, I found myself wanting to be Delirium.
And then, a short time later, when both of us were feeling a little less grim, he shared Good Omens with me. I read the book in one afternoon. And within days I began reading it again. It’s a book I have read many times over. The images of The Four Horsemen in my head, the confusion around who exactly is supposed to be the Antichrist, it gave me so much joy. As did an Antichrist who just wants to go to the circus. It’s my comfort book. My go-to book when I just need to dive into a world that isn’t mine but that I know very well.
I cannot tell you what it is about this book that I love so much. It makes no sense when I think about the destruction wrought by the person who gave me the book. And yet, there is something so compelling about the fantasy, perhaps the silliness of it, that keeps pulling me back to it again and again.
I used to pick up the book and think of Josh, and think of it as “his book” because he’s the one who first shared it with me. I don’t feel that way anymore. The book is mine. It’s a book that friends know is one of my favorite books. It’s a book I share with people I love if they’re not already familiar with it. And it’s a book I think of when I’m struggling with my own confidence as a writer. Because I remember that Neil Gaiman once gave Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess) some very important advice: “Pretend you’re good at it.”
I hold onto that advice almost as closely as I hold onto the best writing advice I’ve ever been given. That advice, if you’re curious “Tell the story only you can tell in the way only you can tell it,” and it came from Adam, who has been instrumental in undoing the damage that Josh did. Damage that led me to give up writing for so many years.
These books are special not just for the words contained in them, but because they taught me to tell stories, but because of the stories I can tell about the books. Because when I talk about reading Little Women I want to take you there with me, under the covers with the too heavy tome and discovering the world of the March family.
Books tell not just their Stories… but Ours
I want my readers to be able to imagine my cold feet, and the pounding in my heart when I thought I heard footsteps coming to tell me to put the book away, to turn out the light and go to sleep when all I wanted to do was read just one more chapter. I want them to feel the anguish I felt when the book was returned to me with most of the ribbon chopped off. Or the pride at being given such a grown up book. I want people to feel what I did for so many years when I picked up Good Omens. To feel the conflict between my rage at the person who gave it to me for how he harmed me and my absolute love for Anathema Device and her book of prophecies.
Books, when shared, are love stories. The love stories engraved in the memories people make about sharing them. They are stories that make me look forward to what comes next. To discovering not just the next great book, but the person who will share it with me, and the story that I will write about it. And maybe one day, it will be my (still unwritten) book that someone holds in their hands, a gift from someone who sees what no one else does, and knows that this book will be one they too, hold on to.
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