Five days ago, I woke with an exquisite feeling of all-body all-soul nourishment. A rare feeling. My vivid dream was that I was wandering through a used bookstore—a warren of small book-filled rooms bathed in soft amber light. Lots of burnished wood, small upholstered chairs at the end of each row of bookshelves to sit and pore over the pages of an illustrated Alice in Wonderland or Daumier’s lithographs. The dark orange spines of Penguin editions beckon me, I walk dreamlike down corridors of books, taking volumes from shelves, paging through them, enjoying the quiet warmth of this place, just a clock ticking somewhere. It reminded me a bit of Bastion Books, one of the few remaining independent used bookstores in Victoria, with its welcoming nooks and crannies. In my dream, I wander to the far end of this bookstore to a small doorway then enter a compact room where my three sons sit on straight-backed chairs as if expecting me, all smiling as I approach. They rise to hug me. We embrace without words, and I feel their height and strength flow into me. And then I am awake, full to the brim.
The dream was significant to me now because I miss both hugging my sons and access to books (I haven’t explored the relationship between those two things…). Although I can talk to my sons on the phone, through text, or video-chat, their physical hugs are off limits. The libraries are shut, and the bookstores are too—they allow for online ordering, but the brick and mortar stores are locked, and I cannot materially browse, an activity that sustains me. In a synchronous turn of events, I came across The Booksellers, a documentary available online via Cinecenta, the movie theatre at the University where I work. Cinecenta is another small business suffering financially during this pandemic. Their theatre is dark and shuttered, the snack bar where I got so many coffees is now deserted. So they partnered with Kinosmith to offer this documentary. After clicking a link provided on their website and paying by credit card, I was able to watch a fascinating exploration of booksellers in New York City. This history of the rare and antiquarian book trade in that diverse city was peppered with interviews with some of the unusual and eccentric people that devote their lives to books as precious objects.
After watching the doc, I started to think about how my constrained access to books lately due to Covid-19 has actually enriched my life in an unforeseeable way. Because I didn’t have my usual broad choice of reading material, I started to forage a little more intently in the free little libraries in the neighbourhood. Some cautious neighbours had removed all of the books from the shelves of their little libraries and posted signs explaining that they would re-stock after the risk of virus contamination had decreased. Thankfully, others had kept their books on the shelves, and I found myself returning to these spots over and over and taking books I wouldn’t normally be interested in.
A few weeks ago, I picked up Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower from the cute little library on the front yard of a house around the corner. “Take a Book, Leave a Book” was painted in curlicued white letters across the blue cupboard doors. When I was a teenager, I decided I wasn’t interested in science fiction. Somehow, I only wanted to read things that were “real.” So I turned to 19th century British novels and early-mid 20th century American writers like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Of course I have cast my reading net much wider since then, but I still don’t tend to be drawn to science fiction or its sister genres, fantasy and horror. Yet, as I dug into Butler’s novel, I became engrossed by the young female narrator/ protagonist Lauren who is bent on survival in a dystopian America of the future. Her warrior spirit drives her to escape from the murder of her family and razing of her home in a gated community in Southern California and form a motley tribe of people all searching for safety. Due to her mother’s drug abuse, Lauren was born with hyperempathy, a disability that has her feeling other people’s pain to a debilitating degree. She develops a religion called Earthseed, whose God is Change because the only thing we can be certain of is that everything changes. What felt eerie about this novel, written in 1993, was that Butler’s portrayal of a dystopian nation read as strongly resembling Trump’s America.
After finishing The Parable of the Sower, I felt I must read the sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998); however, only in a world of magic would I find that book in a free little library. So I borrowed Michael’s Kindle and splurged on the e-book, and I am devouring it now. I’m still in the early chapters, and I am curious what will happen to the tyrannical megalomaniac president whose slogan is “Make America Great Again.” I am not kidding—this president really is a character in a novel published in 1998.
I always prefer books as objects over digitized texts. I love the feel and look of books. I love to explore marginalia and marks, run my hands over bindings, examine tatters and pages folded over, text that has been underlined. The other day I picked up a well worn novel (The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli) from a free library that had written in the inside cover in elegant cursive, “Property of” followed by a rectangular stamp: The Cavern Hotel and Café, El Nido, Palawan. I Googled this mysterious place and discovered it is a hotel offering pod accommodations in the Philippines. So interesting. (The next day, Trip Advisor wondered if I would like to see the current rates for staying the Cavern.)
Even though I recycle books through free libraries and friends, I do keep a library at home of books that I love: poetry and feminism, how to write and teach writing, graphic novels and memoirs, and twentieth-century American novels I had the privilege of studying and teaching for a short while. But lately I have appreciated how the e-book allows me to read while Michael sleeps. With the slim Kindle propped up under the covers as I curl around it in the dark, I enter into the world of Butler’s novel, where kindness is the last good thing, where people band together in tribes because love and human relationships are all that we have, and where impermanence is the only truth. Wait a minute, all of that is sounding familiar. Is it really the future, or is it now?
I wake up every morning in this dream-like world, and I say to myself, “I wonder what will happen today?”