Two things about this quote did not turn out to be quite true for me. For one, I found it in a list of quotes compiled for people suffering from writer’s block. I myself am not a sufferer. As a book reviewer, I have my material laid out before me each week the way a mother lays out clothes for her son to wear to school. So I was not trying to ‘make a book’; just to write a review for one.
Secondly, when Mr. Johnson wrote about turning over half a library, I don’t think he meant it literally.
I: All That for One Book?
People are generally impressed and often enraptured when you tell them that you do any sort of writing for work. They imagine you with a handcrafted Italian cappuccino, hunched over your desk to get a little closer to the screen because what’s happening there is so exciting, you can’t take your eyes off of it.
I have no Italians to handcraft cappuccinos for me. My wife is from Alabama. Although she is sweeter than caramel syrup, the coffee she makes is bitter and watery all at once. That’s what I drink while I sit, not at my desk, but on our lumpy couch with a pillow behind my back and a large dog on my lap. I rest my elbows on the dog, who doesn’t seem to mind being used as a stand for whatever book I’m reading. This, and not writing, is what I do for ninety-five percent of my workweek.
Combined with Beth’s far-better-paying job, it pays the bills. But I confess, I don’t enjoy reading now as much as I did when I started it. Reading for recreation or even education is one thing. Reading to let other people know whether they should read something or not — that’s quite another.
I used to read through my own eyes, challenging the author’s words with my thoughts. Now I read through the eyes of the public, and keeping my own thoughts out of it has become disturbingly easy. I don’t think, or feel; I read, and then I write.
Then came a Thursday when that was not enough. No matter how many cups of watery coffee Beth made for me, I couldn’t read another word. I didn’t have the brainpower. The silence inside my head was suddenly a deafening white noise, a nothing that blocked out everything. The bad coffee, the snoring dog, the beautiful wife, the ugly couch — none of it made any difference to me.
I had no thoughts.
His Friday deadline approaching fast, Wesley Winter was dead.
I dropped the book, shoved the dog off my lap, and dumped the coffee on my way out the door.
II: Half a Library Is Better Than None
Beth did herself great credit by not following me. Three years of marriage had clearly prepared her for the day when I would finally crack, and it didn’t faze her. She had trained herself to read me the way I read books — following the plot through scenes both fast and slow, constructing a story arc along the way. The pacing of my story had accelerated with frightening speed, but instead of falling off the track, she let the suspense keep building, knowing it would drop again soon.
In that sense, she was a better reader than I am. I was scared out of my wits that day, or maybe I was trying to be scared back into them. Into the car, onto the freeway, out of town I went, searching for a feeling of my own. Not “the secondhand thrill of the emotional pickpocket,” as John Spence wrote. (Even now I could only think in quotations.)
As I drove, the sky dimmed like lights in a giant theater when a performance is about to start. The mountains east of Salt Lake City hid behind a curtain of gloom, and I wondered what they would do when they came out.
The orchestra began to play, and thunder was the overture. It came rumbling towards me so slowly, I hardly noticed the sound; I thought it was the rough road surface beneath me. But it got louder when the road smoothed out. Now I could hear when it exploded in one gigantic crack, making me jump so badly my car swerved. Someone in the sky had a bass drum and was playing it fortissimo.
Then came the hail. It pounded my car and my brain, and I had to find shelter for both. I pulled off the freeway at the next exit, which took me into Kaysville. Gas stations on both sides of the road had cars parked under their canopies like foxes packed into a cave, taking whatever refuge they could from the elements. In an unfamiliar town, I had no cave of my own — until I saw a sign for the library.
I know libraries are not the ultimate place of asylum for endangered souls. But it was close by, and I didn’t know where else to go. At the light, I turned left, following the arrow on the sign, and ended up at the worst place I could possibly be during a hailstorm.
The library was newly built, and therefore the landscaping was also new. Two wimpy trees waved at each other like long-lost friends from opposite sides of the parking lot, and a second later, one broke loose from the ground and went running to meet its friend. I put my car in reverse just in time to avoid being hugged by it en route. It slammed into the other tree, snapping its trunk, and they both went tumbling across the field together.
Instinct told me to get out of the car, but logic told me the car was heavier than I am, and if one of us was going to get picked up by the wind without the other, it would definitely be me. So I stayed and watched the most horrific of horrors happen.
The sky turned a sickening orange, and the clouds began to move in a slithering, stalking way. They moved toward each other as the two trees had done. But when they met, nothing snapped or flew away; instead, they swirled together, spiraling downward and downward until I had the sense to put my car in reverse again.
Nothing was behind me but a playground. No — the playground was gone, its swingset rolling like a tumbleweed toward an everlasting park in swingset heaven. Now there was only an open field, so I stepped on my accelerator and got the hail out of there.
I had to go backward, though. Turning around and moving forward would have been the sensible choice, but then the library would be behind me. I wanted to see what became of it.
Through a windshield so damaged by hailstones, it functioned more like a kaleidoscope, I witnessed the most surreal vision. The funnel cloud descended as if by conscious thought, aiming for the Kaysville library. Leaves from trees a mile away got stirred up with the cloud, looking like sprinkles in enough cotton candy for ten thousand people. They followed the tornado into the building. Brick by brick, window by window, it flew apart until the leaves from the trees were flying with the leaves of ten thousand books.
Then, the cloud dissipated.
The sky turned back to its gloomy gray, the hail gave way to rain, and the destructive gales softened into hair-whipping winds.
Outwardly shaking but inwardly serene, I opened my car door and got out. When I closed it again, the metal surface had the bumpy texture of an enormous golf ball. I ignored the hail damage. I was about to have thoughts for the first time in weeks — maybe months, or more — and I did not want those thoughts to be about auto body shops and deductibles.
Under my feet there was grass. I couldn’t remember the last time I had walked on grass. Beneath its blanket of fresh ice from the sky, it was so soft, so forgiving. I removed my shoes and let my feet freeze as I walked. Before I reached the empty library parking lot, the warm rain had melted all the hailstones, and I could only feel blades of wet grass between my toes.
The asphalt of the parking lot was shimmering in the glow of the emerging sun. A rainbow appeared in a puddle, and when I looked up, there was one above the mountains too. My eyelashes were so heavy with raindrops, my vision was blurred, but it was still spectacular. Hair, clothes, skin, every part of me was soaked. I felt the wind like I’d never felt it before, and I relished every second of it.
The best moment, though, was when I took my eyes off the mountains and aimed them at the building in front of me. Well, it was half a building now; the part with the restrooms and galleries and meeting rooms was left standing. But not a single bookshelf hadn’t been toppled in the storm.
I walked through the wreckage, honoring the fallen books with my silence. It was broken by laughter, though, when something landed on my shoulder.
A page of a book. It was followed by thousands more, and by the leaves that had been swept up into the tornado. It was a battle of leaves against leaves, and those tiny ones from the trees formed an army that vanquished an entire library of paper. That’s the power of nature, I suppose.
All the way home I smiled, sometimes laughing quietly to myself, sometimes shaking my head in wonderment. I was wondering how that tornado knew I was sick and tired of reading.
III: A Man Will Turn Over
When we got home that evening, my car and I both looked as if we’d been beaten up by Godzilla. Beth, in her quiet grace, didn’t ask what had happened; she went straight to the bed and folded the covers down so I could get under them. She slid the shoes off my feet, and no doubt noticed they were covered in grass stains and rubble. But she tucked me in, turned off the light, and left me alone.
Friday morning, a bitter smell woke me up, and I knew it was almost time for my morning potion to be served. Hearing the bedroom door open, I turned over in bed to look at the person standing in the doorway with the brim of a mug against her lips. Behind that mug, I knew there was a smile.
“Could you pour me a cup?” I asked. “I’ve got a lot of writing to do.”
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