For the love of books

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.

IMG_1608A 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.

IMG_0812I 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 IMG_0788 2the 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?”



Random acts of reading: Little free libraries and green-coloured glasses

The inter-art subject was fun, but the constraint became too constraining (I was searching too hard to find perfect material). So this week I am moving to another subject—the gems acquired through random acts of reading.

I have always enjoyed wandering around libraries or my own library and picking a book at random (often with eyes closed), opening it wherever, and seeing what I get.* Perhaps this practice is a secular version of Bibliomancy, where a sacred book is balanced on its spine, allowed to fall open, and a passage selected with one’s eyes closed. My aim in this practice is not spiritual, but it is purposeful: I do these random acts of reading with the intention of finding some serendipitous truth or significance in the words I land on. As Swedish detective Kurt Wallender says in the marvelous PBS series “there are no coincidences.”

This week I enjoyed wandering around my neighbourhood, treasuring the last weeks of leisure (my new job begins July 18). We have at least three little free libraries in a five-block radius of our house.

I passed the newest and most elegant of the three mini libraries a few days ago and chose a couple of books. The following day, I dropped by the glass-doored cabinet and replenished the library’s supply with two books I have enjoyed and am ready to hand on: John Updike’s, The Beauty of the Lilies and Rachel Naomi Remen’s, Kitchen Table Wisdom.

One of the books I took was Anthony Trollope’s Early Short Stories. I enjoyed reading Trollope’s Barsetshire series in my twenties—they are highly addictive. But I didn’t know him as a story writer. As I am now writing stories, I thought I would explore his shorter fictions.

I opened the book randomly and started to read “La Mère Bauche.” I found the plot grim—a sixtyish stern mother (proprietress of a hotel) prevents her adult son from marrying his childhood sweetheart, and coerces the young woman (an orphan) to marry, instead, a fifty-year-old one-legged man. The young maid subsequently kills herself rather than submit to the man. The moral, I suppose, is that one shouldn’t meddle in the affairs of others: La Mère Bauche “never again laid down laws for the management of anyone” (90). Apparently Harper’s Magazine, who had commissioned the piece, hated it and never published it. I can see why.

As someone trying to learn the craft of fiction, I found more interesting than this nineteenth-century plot a physical detail of La Mère Bauche that carries symbolic weight. We are told in an early description of La Mère that “her eyebrows were large and bushy, but those alone would not have given her face that look of indomitable sternness which it possessed. Her eyebrows were serious in their effect, but not so serious as the pair of green spectacles which she always wore under them. It was thought by those who had analyzed the subject that the great secret of Madame Bauche’s power lay in her green spectacles” (66).

Madame’s green spectacles are referred to again at strategic moments. When the girl, Marie, beseeches her benefactress to consider her love for Madame’s son, “Madame Bauche’s spectacles remained unmoved; but not her heart” (72). Later, when angry with Marie, Madame is ready to carry out “all the threats conveyed by those terrible spectacles,” and an “angry fire glimmered through the green glasses” (p. 83).

At one point, those green spectacles take on a life of their own. When Marie closets herself in her room to weep after the wedding and refuses to leave, “twice did the green spectacles leave the room, covering eyes which also were not dry” (89). And Madame begins to wonder if she had perhaps done the wrong thing in insisting on this marriage.

Trollope uses the detail of the green spectacles judiciously. He doesn’t hammer away at the symbolism. Only much later did I wonder: If cheerful optimistic folks are said to see life through rose-coloured glasses, perhaps Madame’s green glasses illustrate her view of the world through the lens of jealousy and possessiveness. She must have her son all to herself and in clinging to him, she ruins four lives. If the glasses are the great secret of Madame’s power, they are also the secret of her tragic life. The glasses prevent her from following her compassionate heart.

This was a good story for me to learn about using character detail in a story. As David Lodge says, “all description in fiction is highly selective; its basic rhetorical technique is synecdoche, the part standing in for the whole” (68). Trollope’s careful use of green spectacles is a great example.

Trollope’s story had another message for me about the dangers of mothers clinging to their sons. I said good-bye to my youngest son on Wednesday. Two months shy of 22, he is off for an adventure, destination Halifax, with just a backpack and his dreams. For that good-bye, I put on my rose-coloured glasses and I am determined to keep them on.

*I was charmed to see that Ian Brown, in his memoir Sixty, enjoys the same practice of opening books, reading randomly, and finding treasure.

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Works Cited

Lodge, David. The Art of Fiction. London, England: Penguin Books, 1992.

Trollope, Anthony. 1859. “La Mère Bauche.” Early Short Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.