I’m sure there is such a thing as fulfilling lives, without books. I’m equally sure I’d want no part of any of them. Various narratives I’ve read over the years see learning from books (“book learning” being the often said with distain expression) as some kind of sheltered, limiting, life, as if the mighty band of bookworms worldwide spend their lives incarcerated (without mercy) in reading chairs, no doubt in a windowless rooms.
A voice inside my head cries out, “That’s a lot of hooey!”
I could not live without books in my life may not be a literal truth for me, but it comes damned close.
Somewhere, damned if I know where given that on some fronts I have the organizational skills of a tree stump, I have a shirt that reads, So Many Books, So Little Time. So true.
Frankly, I can’t and don’t want to imagine life without books. I am utterly baffled by those who don’t read books. No doubt there are joys they have found in life that are foreign to me, or joys that I simply don’t understand. Car races for one. Millions get enormous joy from them so I am glad they are there; I like seeing people happy. But when I try to watch them, the cars going round and round again and again and again and again…all I can do is shrug and think, Well, at least they won’t get lost.
When I am, as I like to say, without book, meaning I don’t have a book I’m reading in life (a rare thing), I really am like a fish out of water. My life is out of alignment. Hell, I’m out of alignment. On edge and physically uncomfortable throughout the day, I am swept up in a kind of anxiousness. When, finally, I find a book that I can develop a relationship with, an enormous sense of relief sweeps over me. Much the same kind of relief, my dopey mind imagines, that someone lost at sea feels when they finally reach the safety of land.
Reading has been my refuge for many, many years. When I was homeless as a teen, I would go into drugstores or five and dimes and steal a paperback off one of those wire racks that always screech when you turn them. This way, alone at night, or fighting for warmth or dealing with hunger, tucked away in a basement or abandoned building somewhere, I had a world other than my own I could visit.
It was my father who gave me the whole wide world of books, the never-ending always-present adventure of reading. He was in his room one day working at his desk. Behind him was a ceiling to floor bookshelf filled with books. I think a wall full of books is visually more beautiful than any painting I’ve ever seen. “I’m not a reader like you and Mommy,” I announced.
He set his pencil down, leaned back in is chair, gently smiled, and said, “What makes you say that?”
“Well, every time I try and read one of these books I can’t finish them.”
And then he said the most remarkable thing. “What makes you think you have to finish them?”
I was floored. “Aren’t you supposed to finish them?”
“No. You’re thinking school assignment. We’re talking about reading. Let me ask you something, don’t you think the author has some responsibility to keep you interested?”
“Okay then, here’s what you do,” he gestured at the books behind him. “Pick ten books that perk your interest and read them until you lose interest. Don’t look at page numbers and don’t worry about finishing them. One day you’ll look up and you’ll have finished a book.”
I was free! The world of books was mine! I grabbed ten books, even some I wasn’t sure I was interested in but wanted to see what was inside them anyway, and brought them to my room. To this day, if I lose interest in a book I put it back on the shelf and move on.
By the way, the first book I finished only weeks after my father’s advice was a novel called The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell. It’s a great book. And there’s lots more.