When I Eat Books
I was at grandma’s house when I first learned to read quietly. In my mind. I was on the blue loveseat in my aunt’s room and I jumped up and ran to ask grandma how people read “not out loud.” She told me to think the words. My aunt (whose library is filled with almost every genre: romance,science fiction, fantasy, non-fiction, mysteries) had given me The Outsiders to read, so I was a Greaser! Me and Ponyboy and Sodapop.
I've given away too many books to remember. I try to sign the front page with something clever. For a rose only the heart can see, I wrote in The Little Prince. A serious book for a serious lady, I wrote in Blood Meridian. I don’t lend my books out. I am not a library. Mostly, I’m afraid you won’t love it the way I did: I never laid it down like an open-faced sandwich with its spine creaking. I never folded a corner down. I never left it in the car to swell. I never carried it in the rain. If you want a book I have, I’ll buy it for you; I don’t mind. If you refuse me, you must not want to read it bad enough.
I read The Time Traveler’s Wife in two days. A weekend. I couldn't stop reading even though I didn't want to read it anymore. When I woke up in the mornings, I hurried to see Henry and Claire. I was worried about them. A pit in my stomach. When I finished the book, I read the last page so fast I had to reread it. And again. I sat on the edge of my bed. When I finally closed the book, closed it on the sun coming into Claire’s room, I cried. I wept. When I went to work the next morning at the high school, I begged a colleague to read it. So I wouldn't be alone with the burden of what happened to Henry and Claire. In comparison, the movie was like a commercial: brief, inauthentic, and quickly forgotten.
When I finished The Road I wandered for days in my mind, searching for the fire. For a way home. When I finished The Brothers Karamazov, I reached out to my own two brothers, wondering which one of them would save us all in the end. When I read The Martian Chronicles, I saw faces with yellow coin eyes in my dreams. After I read Watership Down on my aunt’s recommendation, I read it every year for years after. Around Christmastime the warren would stir sleepily in my mind, waiting to wake up again.
“Not all the birds are to be trusted, and there are other spies more evil than they are,” says Strider to the hobbits as they set out on their journey in The Lord of the Rings. The Dark Riders were a terrifying image to a young teenager. I couldn't finish the books. The Wraiths were too real. Standing over my bed. When I tried again years later, I got all the way to the end of Return of the King before I stopped. I didn't want Frodo to die.
Later, as I read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, terror seized me as Trisha came upon a clearing in the night with a gnarled stump at one end. Beyond the edges of my book the darkness of my room suffocated every recognizable object. The God of the Lost.
As they descend to the depths of the Zoo of Death, in The Princess Bride, Fezzik asks Inigo, “If I tell you something, will you promise not to laugh at me or mock me or be mean to me?”
“My word,” Inigo nodded.
“I’m just scared to pieces,” Fezzik said.
“Be sure it ceases,” Inigo said right back.
“Oh, that’s a wonderful rhyme.”
The movie, as funny as it is, doesn't quite capture the depth of humor and suffering and joy in the book. On Twitter the other day, someone wrote, why read the book when you can watch the movie? I wanted to respond, why watch the movie when you can read the book?
Now it is the future. I read more on screens than paper. I read terrifically fast, to the disbelief of even my own family members, who should be familiar with my powers by now. What can I say? I've put my 10,000 hours into reading the written word. So I consume Twitter feeds and blog posts and AP articles in moments. Tap scroll tap close. But there was a time, once, when I read so carefully I could hear footsteps behind me. When I lived a lifetime of marriage and death and heartbreak in a book. When my soul drifted out the window to the stars. When I wandered through a swamp at night and woke up to butterflies.
As a kid, my dad gave me science fiction to read because that’s all he read. Growing up without a father, he found dads in the swashbuckling space heroes of Jack Vance. Kirth Gersen, for example, and Adam Reith. Kirth witnesses the slaughter of his colony, his family, by the five Demon Princes. He dedicates his life to training as an assassin to take his revenge. Reith crashes his scout ship on a strange planet and fights to return to Earth. In their stories, Kirth and Adam face a universe of impossible decisions, ruthless villains and bizarre creatures with a stoicism my father must have envied growing up.
Dad and I drove to Jack Vance’s house in California last year. He is old now. He is blind. He plays songs on his banjo and sings to his son who takes care of him in a great wooden cabin that feels like a studio apartment. He told us a story about being on vacation with Frank Herbert in Mexico. Frank told him about an idea he had for a story: “He’d just read this book about the ocean. ‘This is a place where there’s no water. It’s all desert. The people who live there, they mine spice,’ said Frank. And as I was sitting there I kind of shook my head, Frank I don’t know, I wouldn't waste any time on something like that. But Frank looked off across Lake Chapala and didn't pay any attention to me. Then of course Dune came out and Frank made a million bucks on the damn thing. In one of the front pages Frank wrote, ‘And I must say, I have Jack Vance to thank!’ And all I did was try to tell him to not write Dune.”
Somewhere there’s a picture of Jack Vance steering his ship in the San Francisco Bay, looking every bit like one of his space captains.
I was in love once. We traded our favorite books from the library, hoping we’d love each other’s books as we would love each other. I left a copy of Watership Down on the stage as she rehearsed for her play; she gave me a copy of Ella Enchanted. When we broke up over a year later, we confessed that we hadn't finished each other’s books after all. It was about rabbits, she said. And hers was about a child-princess with only happy endings.
When I first read Rilke, the Austrian poet, the words filled me up so fast I couldn't read anymore. By the light of my touch lamp, I got to the end of “Lament” and stopped. And breathed.
I would like to step out of my heart
and go walking beneath the enormous sky.
I would like to pray.
And surely of all the stars that perished
one still exists.
I think that I know
which one it is—
which one, at the end of its beam in the sky,
stands like a white city . . .
Since starting graduate school, my 600 books have grown to almost 800. My library is filled with almost every genre: science fiction, fantasy, non-fiction, mysteries. My wish list on Amazon has over a hundred books. Too many to read in a lifetime, probably. Unlike the movies, they take considerable time to experience. Our own lives, waking and dreaming, weave between the lines.
When my mother first came to this country, a year before she married my dad, she stayed with a family in northern Utah. They had four blond-haired little children she fell in love with. On the shelves in the basement where she slept was the first book she read in English. The title intrigued me, she said. It looked like a story about people who didn't fit. There were so many new words she had to read with a dictionary. It took me forever to read that book, she told me. But she liked The Outsiders. Yes, she was one of the Greasers too! Her and Ponyboy and Sodapop.