Have you ever had the experience of searching for something you are certain you have but you just can’t find? You open a box that you haven't opened for a while because you're sure what you are looking for is in there. But, while you're scratching around, you find other things. An old photograph, a ticket stub, a postcard, and before long, you have forgotten what you were looking for and you're taking a walk back in time, reminiscing.
This is exactly what happened to me. I had planned and mapped my speech, listing everything I had appreciated about books. I had narrowed it down to three themes – escapism, knowledge and friends, and I was rummaging around in my memory looking for books that I had read that would perfectly illustrate the points I was going to make. I was waylaid by the memory of the first time I read Gone With the Wind when I was 16. I was so immersed in the story of Rhett and Scarlett. I would carry the book around in my school bag and at every opportunity, I would take it out and devour a few pages. I would read on my lap while the teacher was talking, with a flagrant disregard for the consequences. Break times were not for eating, they were for feeding my voracious appetite for what would happen next. Years later I read about a woman named Helen in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Somehow, Helen had managed to find and hide a book. She would sacrifice some of her sleeping time every night to read in secret, and the next day, under pain of death she would share the story with the other prisoners. She was willing to risk her life for a story. I was thrilled when I discovered the book she had also read so furtively was Gone With the Wind.
Memory lane is such a pleasant place to stroll, so I lingered and recalled how I was reading Atlas Shrugged when I found out I was pregnant. It’s not the shortest book around and I kept falling asleep while I was reading, something that had never happened to me before. It was this frustration with not being able to read my book that made me question what was going on with my body.
Jane Eyre was the one who kept me company when that baby eventually arrived. Naively imagining a lot of time for reading, I dutifully packed my book into my hospital bag. There was not a lot of time for reading, but Jane did keep me company through midnight feeds and transported me somewhere genteel, away from the chaos of dirty nappies and all the other drama of a newborn.
That lead me to memories of my older brother passing away suddenly about 10 years ago, soon after his son was born. I left home in such a hurry that I forgot to pack a book, and the only thing I could find to read was my younger sister's copy of Twilight, a book I had dismissed as appropriate only for angst-ridden teenagers. I escaped my grief into a world of vampires and werewolves and the love for my brother is forever tied up in Edward and Bella’s story.
And speaking of love, any girl will tell you there is a fair amount of stress involved with planning a wedding and getting married. My wedding was no different, but what I remember when I think back now is Harry Potter! The phenomenon had reached the world several years earlier but I stubbornly and steadfastly refused to read the books because I’d heard someone comparing them to The Lord of the Rings. My love for that book could fill a speech all by itself so, suffice it to say, I was a little outraged that people could compare some magic spells and kid wizards to the complexity and magnitude of the civilisations and languages and histories that Tolkien had created. My wedding stress was keeping me up at night and again, my sister was to blame – I was sleeping in her room and found a copy of J.K. Rowling’s book. My stress was dissipated by the magical world of Hogwarts and I became such good friends with those wizards. I was bereft when the last book ended – a book I had stayed up all night to read after waiting in line for the book shop to open on the day it was released. I couldn’t fathom a world without Harry and Hogwarts.
It was like visiting old friends thinking about all those books, and finding a younger, slightly different version of myself left between the pages, like a pressed flower. I started out being thankful to books for all the times they had helped me escape, all the knowledge I had gained and all the friends they had given me, real and imagined. What I ended up finding as I rummaged through my memories was how intricately books were woven into the fabric of my life – adding colour, texture and depth, and anchoring almost every significant moment. To paraphrase Emily Bronte, “They have gone through me like wine through water and forever altered the colour of my mind.” They are the most constant of friends – and for that Dearest Books, I thank you.