In my home, two bookcases stand tall holding the weight of innumerable novels. Their spines line up one against the other, illustrating a landscape of possibilities. The canons of classical authors and Nobel Laureates intermingle with works by promising rookie novelists and Young Adult trilogies teeming with youthful angst and campy, yet enthralling narratives. Some of the books were gleaned from thrift shops – rare gifts of old classics printed at the turn of the 20th century, books with simplistic cloth covers that when opened emit the perfume of time. There may be a dedication on the title page, occasionally with a personal note to whomever the book was gifted, exchanges made long ago between two people whom I’ve never met, yet to whom I can’t help but feel a connection. That is what’s so special about books; they are immutable pieces of history that pass through time, changing places and exchanging hands, bringing people together in an intangible way. Then there are the newer books, ones that lack years spent on shelves but are fated to become classics in some distant future. These books have intricate covers that suggest the mysteries that unfold within, covers that are works of art. Old books and new books stand together in protest against technologies that threaten to make the printed word obsolete.
That’s not to say that eReaders and the like do not have their benefits, the main being “digital density”, an expansive volume of reading material compressed into a single, personal library. I also won’t wax poetic about the tragedy of modern technology and its ever-expansive electric tendrils weaving throughout every aspect of our daily lives. It’s been done. Instead, this is my attempt to honor the written word, to consecrate it, or at least to do it some semblance of justice for all its power and beauty. Reading isn’t just my beloved hobby. It’s my spirituality and my faith. Reading helps me feel a part of something bigger, greater, part of a whole. This whole is not just a collective of living beings, but it also transcends space and time. A library holds endless adventures. When all the books in existence have been read, new ones will always be written.
There are so many layers in life, so much grayness. I grew up thinking of life as black and white, not unlike writing on a page. Then, as time ripens a fruit, and age brings wisdom or at least experience, I came to see the truth. What little we know…
Finishing a book is something like death. Stories once integral to my daily routine become complete. Characters that felt like friends are lost in the final sentences read. When I close a book for the last time, I feel that loss. It’s like that moment when you pause to realize that a year of your life has passed in the time it took to turn a page. What the future holds is uncertain, what is certain is that life will continue in one forward direction and it won’t pause for anyone. Finishing a book ends a chapter of life, but opens a door to new realities, new stories, new choices, new life. I can’t fathom what is to come in my remaining years, but I can choose the next book to read. This is when I sit before my bookcases and run my finger along the spines of stories unknown until I’m drawn to one by some instinct that lies within the deep recesses of my mind. I like to think that there is a collective consciousness shared by readers across time that drives one’s literary journey, like a current of knowledge. When deciding what to read next, I pull at least three books from the shelves, three unique stories set in disparate places and ages, three that will each enable my escape from reality and allow me to dream, three with fantastical characters that will become real human beings, my friends.
Books are meant to be read, their spines bent, notes scribbled in their margins, pages dog-eared. There is a scene from a beloved book, The Great Gatsby, which stands out in my memory: The owl-eyed bespectacled man, whose omniscience is alluded to on the book’s cover, refers to Gatsby as a “regular Belasco” as he handles an ornate book with uncut pages. A book with uncut pages is like a book whose spine isn’t broken – never read, never loved, its existence a pointless affair of vanity. That’s not to say that books are not works of art, in fact, I think of writing as painting in words. It’s not just about conveying a message. It’s about putting words together aesthetically, almost musically, connecting the pieces of a puzzle to unify the parts of a whole. Words not only hold meaning but also an appearance and sound. When assembled, those parts of the brain that register sight, sound, and emotion ignite to coalesce these sensations into a visual symphony.
My husband, another avid reader who deeply loves his books, prefers the maintenance of structure; he handles books with the utmost care, preserving their architecture. “Not pen! Never pen, only pencil,” he insists just as I’m about to underline an insightful passage in ink. When I studied abroad in the Australian wild with its ferocious beasts of the sea and endless adventures, he studied in Rome, appreciating its deep, glorious past, its historical breadth. Years later, while on our honeymoon I would have the opportunity to experience his Rome. At the risk of sounding cliché – when in Rome, I felt lost in time. Structures that were built long before Christ are interspersed throughout the city with contemporary trattorias and café shops. History melds together and each street harbors some hidden treasure. Generations of human beings are heard as whispers throughout Rome, giving the low, soft buzzing of time immemorial.
Our, my husband’s and my, very different experiences of studying abroad seem to illustrate our opposing views on book handling. In Australia, I dove into life, engrossed in the thrill of exploration, whereas in Rome, my husband admired the beauty of time as one does a priceless work of art. Experiencing versus observing, adventure versus exploration, wilderness versus cosmopolitanism, despite these dichotomies in our past, our love is as grounded in reading as it is in one another. The best part of life is looking forward to experiencing it together in books and beyond.
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