We were wending our way through the bookstore, when out of the corner of my eye I noted a bold sign with an arrow stating: Life begins here. I kept on, thought how remarkable, then stopped and turned. Of course the sign didn’t say that, but it was worth tucking away for a pensive hour.
It was instead the start of a line for customers toting boxes and bags of well-used or unwanted books for possible resale. They might have needed quick money (though I would like to think not) or more room in a smaller habitat. Perhaps there was an ended relationship and the now-unshared books were thorny reminders. An expansive estate sale may have rendered more yellowed pages than desired. Or better yet, perhaps their cargo was meant to be circulated the world, offered to those who may not have had the pleasure of delving into a wealth of poems by Muriel Spark or escapades shared with Rumer Godden’s wise, slyly humorous characters. I had stood in that line many times feeling somewhat traitorous (weren’t these lovely books? didn’t I need a re-read?), yet relieved to hear: “Cash or store credit?” This meant I could wander the aisles more freely again.
That sign was only a directive for orderliness. Simple, yet it was a mind trick, one of those moments when language flip-flops from eye to brain and the information is altered. In this case, I thought as I headed to the blue room (literature) and then the red room (non-fiction), the skewed interpretation made sense. I was in one of my favorite places-a bookstore-and I had changed direction in my life, having left my job.
I found myself thinking of the incident for days, starting with the line to sell books, a favorite material good of mine.
Books were a significant addition to the foundation of my early years. I don’t recall a good-sized bookstore in the small Michigan city of my childhood and youth, though there must have been. We didn’t buy books very frequently; we checked them out at the library. But though I can vouch for the fact that our home did not have an overabundance of books, there was a floor to ceiling bookshelf in the living room that was packed with volumes, mostly about music and composers; history such as ancient Greece; travel; scholarly studies of the Bible; a collection or two of famous art.
And Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. I recall the last as I read it several times, mesmerized by his seafaring vessel and distant lands. (I think I fell in love for the first time looking at the brave author’s picture.) My parents read to us at bedtime when they had the time. Dad liked to read interesting paragraphs aloud at the dinner table that engendered discussion or a good laugh. My mother, not so inclined to sit and read for long, entertained us with her own stories, and I later learned she sometimes wrote them down in spiral notebooks.
I may not recall a bookstore but I do recall the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library. It was considered very modern, all sharp geometry with brick and much glass defining its lines. Built in 1953, it was designed by Alden B. Dow, a noted, homegrown architect. The moment I entered the heavy double glass doors, whatever was not right with the world was transformed, or at least quelled. The clean-lined, open floor plan invited me; there was a huge wall window at the back that looked out over lush landscaping at the edge of Dow Gardens. It encouraged dreaming. Stairways took me to ever-intriguing rows of knowledge. I took the books into my hands and my mind entered realms that challenged and fulfilled my desire to learn. There was always one more page to read, one more quiet nook to poke around. Whether for research or recreation, the books in this library enlarged and underscored the present, and heralded a future that had few bounds. I took notes for schoolwork but that wasn’t the main reason I spent hours there.
This sanctuary, which housed endless rows of bound pages almost intoxicating upon opening them, helped refine my own fledgling stories and poems. I was another neophyte on a quest. I was a guest in a place whose primary inhabitants were books. When it was time to leave, I was reluctant, and counted on the next chance to lean into the modern leather and metal chairs and investigate things.
It was intellectual freedom, as well as emotional, that I was given. I tried to use it wisely. The books that informed my life were a gateway to adulthood. From Kierkegaard and Sartre, to Hermann Hesse and Sherwood Anderson (whose Winesburg, Ohio is still with me); from Kurt Vonnegut to Denise Levertov’s O Taste and See: they confounded while also defined ideas and longings. Books ignited hope, assured me I was not alone, demanded a better intelligence, gave me good reasons to laugh.
“Line begins here.”I have stood in these lines, arms full of worthy, seemingly necessary books. I spend a good part of my budget on books. Not all authors’ words have enthralled. Some have shown me how not to occupy my mind, how not to put pen to paper. But ignorance is not preferable to an occasional error. Besides, I can bring those shabbily written tomes back to some stores. Then I am on the hunt for more, whether in bookstore or library.
“Life begins here.” Not an original thought, yet the message stuck because I suspect my one true life–the one that gives me a thrill of discovery, the fortitude of knowledge and helpful clues for my soul’s well-being –did begin with language I could hear, speak, read, write. For some it might be another memory of earliest years, a scent or sight. I recall being held and sung to, words buoyed by lilting melodies. There were my mother’s true, astounding farm life tales at bedtime, then my own books read under cover with a flashlight or a diary written in ’til fast asleep. Most of the family took books to the table until my mother decreed no more. There were conversations in our household that originated and ended with words on paper, as well as words held aloft by our attention. Language, spoken or written, was important. It charged the mind and cradled the heart. It made bridges between people, found solutions and provided entry to secret places.
And so I have once more concluded that in order to live authentically, deeply, I have to jump in and fully utilize the language I gather and adore. I am taking back my right to this passion for writing (and the reading, too), every day or night. It has required leaving work that mattered to give myself to the wonders and conundrums of better learning the trade of wordsmith. It’s a risky thing. But I have time for risk and its outcomes, not for inaction.
A book is a myriad things to those of us who love them, including language given room to romp and breathe. Those words are nothing less than alchemical. They alter our sense of being and our place among others within the universe. They are keys to an internal destination we choose. At the very least a story, a book, is a meandering walk down the road, where anything can happen. Where life scintillates with the slow turning of a page.
(Room with wall-sized window overlooking trees and gardens at my childhood library. Thanks, Alden B. Dow.)