I have a friend who is much more comfortable with the thought of dying than I am. A few years older, he cares for the elderly, stands watch with them, then ushers them through that eerie portal. He told me recently that death will be a buoyant moment because “all your spiritual guides will be there to welcome you into their company.”
“You really think so?” I asked, incredulous.
“I know so,” he said, nodding, smiling and saying yes, even when I asked about a writer or two I knew only through books I had read.
The thought that Steinbeck and Merton, Kazantzakis, Twain and Flannery O’Connor would greet me in the Great Beyond made that dreaded moment — and the unnerving strangeness of eternity — a bit more palatable. It was comforting to think that those whom I had read as pilots and pathfinders to help me navigate the human condition would be on hand as personal escorts into the afterlife. Rascally adventure guides.
I have had a lifetime of teachers and friends, family, mentors and strangers passing through, all influencing the journey of my life. But I have also been surrounded, steeped and schooled by books. My parents pressed me to read; bookshelves lined the walls of our home. Books, not people, soothed the trauma of my adolescence, shed light upon my attempts to make sense of the world as a teenager, and gave weight and wings to my excursions as a college student majoring in English lit.
My bedroom and the family den were stacked mostly with histories and biographies; my father had a complete set of the Harvard Classics and bought the family a splendid edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. A high school teacher kept a wire carousel of paperbacks in his classroom and handed me The Catcher in the Rye one day, a book that created spaces in my psyche still warmed by its truths and humor. It was that book — a paper and ink creation through which a total stranger made the world a better, safer, saner place for me — that encouraged my own expeditions into the writing life. I liked how the printed word could engender human intimacy while providing a suitable emotional distance.
There were other coming-of-age novels of the time — Lord of the Flies and A Separate Peace, Cannery Row and The Old Man and the Sea, Gatsby and the fetching but impenetrable Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I also recall being captivated by The Estranged God, a book we read for a religion class that introduced us to the writings and thoughts of authors grappling with the predicament of modern man — Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Camus, Sartre and Kierkegaard. Listening to the wise, brave and befuddled work out their doubts and deliberations in print let me know I was not alone with my angst and uncertainties.
Books were like wormholes into foreign lands but to places even more familiar than my own lonesome, alien surroundings. I heard voices truer and more personal than those around me, articulating things I almost knew, feelings I could not have extracted and explained on my own. Books became mates and, as I lived in them, their meanings and spirit came to live in me.
In college I spent whole semesters with Willa Cather, D.H. Lawrence and Mark Twain, and dug into other selected works, reading, rereading and prying, marking and highlighting, for classes in theology, philosophy and mostly modern lit. I caught wind of the soul of nature, and good teachers sent me hunting through Black Elk Speaks, The Forest People and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, The Snow Leopard and A Sand County Almanac, the writing of Loren Eisley, Edward Hoagland and Barry Lopez ’66, ’68M.A. My own explorations took me into the wild and wondrous world; their words left tracks for me to follow, helped me understand the currents I sensed but couldn’t see.
We all have favorite books that have spoken personally to us, that have guided us through the passages of our lives. A child of my times, I read Vonnegut, Hermann Hesse and Carlos Castaneda, On the Road and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The vistas I encountered as a naïve and quixotic college senior were made intelligible by Report to Greco and Letters to a Young Poet, which became a companion for decades, its flappy pages saturated in yellow as I underscored different sentences and paragraphs as I grew up.
A personal library gathered around me, overran tabletops and shelves. I have accumulated books haphazardly on my own, been given books by family and friends and authors I have known. I have worked for a university magazine all my life and have taught writing for almost 30 years. Writers looking for a plug, trying to find an audience, send me books, as do academicians hoping their scholarly efforts attract some kind of popularity, although a popular following is not what they seek (so they say). So I get books from publishers and self-published books from older folks with a life story to tell, hoping their personal narrative has merit, will mean something to others. Books, it is assumed, make a statement, bring a conclusion or permanence of sorts, proclaim our existence in a world of constant eclipse.
One refrain I’ve heard in this transitory world has been from retiring faculty who lose their office when their time is up. “I have taught here for 40 years,” they say, “and they can’t even find me some office space now that I’m retiring from teaching. I still plan to write and read and keep up. What will I do with all my books?” I tell them I’m sorry. But I also know a university can’t provide offices for all those heading out the back door when future generations of faculty are hustling in the front — or provide shelf space for a person’s academic tomes.
I had a recent conversation with a retiring law professor who was not only moving out of his office but also leaving his home for an apartment in a retirement community. What bothered him most was boxing his books, putting them away. “They are my friends, part of my personality,” he said, looking at the floor, paused in thought. This time I was a more compassionate listener.
A few years ago our magazine staff had to give up our private offices. Walls came down to make room for an expanding staff of multimedia and web professionals. The open-floor concept provided “work stations” that left no room for privacy, solitude, quiet — or books. The removal of a lifetime’s gathering of books caused me great consternation, had me thinking deeply, and longingly: What had been lost?
After all, in today’s world of technological streamlining, people carry around whole libraries in a hand-held device, downloading text (and video and photographs) from online distributors, carrying multiple volumes in flat tablets. As I boxed books that I then carried into my basement at home, straining with each carton as I clumsily navigated wooden steps, I realized how antiquated is this act; the bearing and storing of burdensome books must now seem laughably antediluvian.
I have a good many friends of all ages who happily embrace buying and reading books on screen: convenient, adaptable, easy on the eyes, such ready access to a universe of texts. I also have a friend who says it is like watching your children out the window; she misses the touching, the holding, the heft, the personal intimacy of a book in her hands. I like the weight and feel, the tactile quality of books. They fit right and good in my hands, both paperback and hardcover. Size and shape and thickness matter. Whether Moby-Dick or the slender reeds of Thích Nhất Hạnh, to carry a book is to walk with a gift box full of river stones and gems. Its tangible, meaty presence gives it character, and long-familiar page designs and type fonts — with underlines and scribbles — welcome me home. I think it significant, not sad, that books draw their lifeblood from trees. And when you lift a book from the nightstand or slip it from a shelf, it opens itself like a doorway, vaulting the imagination into other places, away from yourself and the tedium of days — quietly — and away from the ubiquitous screens, pop-up distractions and info-chatter of our existence.
I have also known comfort and pleasure from the books standing unopened on my shelves. I know them by their spines. Some I returned to often, pulling them down for work, as references and sources, or to revisit for simple reading pleasure. Some I have hardly opened, but discarding them seems an insult to those who gave them to me. I know what was poured into each one, why someone said, “You should read this.” A good many are by writers I have known — perhaps not household names or major leaguers but fine, insightful, dedicated writers whose work deserves respect, even admiration, and a place in my collection. Some of them offer inspiration, motivation for the indolent writer in me; they all, collectively, speak of the literary life, the value and nobility of the written word, the human quest to speak and share, to connect, and announce that Kilroy was here, and had something to say, wanted to leave a mark, did not go without first singing out the window.
And my being physically situated in their midst, flanked by such evidence, such testimony, elevated the labor of my little days. I had a book or two of mine on the shelves as well, a small but earnest voice in the chorus.
Almost every book has two stories to tell — the one found on its pages and another that’s largely secret between me and it. And that relationship has its own significance. I read The Magus and David Attenborough’s Life on Earth when traveling in the Canadian High Arctic, and happened upon A Prayer for Owen Meany when looking for rhyming lines in crazy life. I read A Gathering of Old Men because of an African-American friend who grew up on the other side of the levee from me in Louisiana, and Giovanni’s Room because a gay friend once wanted me to know what he was going through. I read Lonesome Dove at the persistent urging of an older friend with whom I backpacked in the West each year for a decade. Its themes of honor and male friendship guide me still, as Parkinson’s disease has slowed the steps of my gentle hiking partner.
Each book inhabiting those office shelves sent me down corridors of memory and time, the vagrant trajectories of a life, books that seemed to speak to the different stages of me. On the Loose, A River Runs Through It and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Razor’s Edge and A Death in the Family. The Sportswriter, Independence Day and Angle of Repose. From bedtime tales like The Velveteen Rabbit and Goodnight Moon to Jayber Crow and Gilead, the stories of men looking back, trying to put things in order.
On those bookcases was a lifetime of reading, a litany of friends and family, gifts and dreams and regrets. Flights of enthusiasm. Flares of imagination. Memories that made me smile. Walker Percy, Watership Down and A Confederacy of Dunces. And when I came to work, I felt the embrace of ghosts, the grace of sacred artifacts, for many books, though not all, have in their DNA what’s humanly holy.
The books that have surrounded me all these years have also kept me in close proximity to myself, reminded me who I am and where I come from. There’s much value in that — to listen to The Little Prince again just when you’re feeling trapped by adult “matters of consequence,” or to recall Siddartha when consumed by the world’s phantom lures. I need not reread the books to hear their meanings and messages. I know them by what they instilled in me long ago, by resonant feelings, truths imparted, keen, insightful perceptions bestowed. A glance at each title evoked intangible realities that asked only for imagination, memory and faith to be rekindled.
A scan of their spines reminded me of the enduring truths that writers go after, the goods to hold fast to. A good, good book carries the writer’s vision and presence and spirit. It is a holy conveyance from one to another, and it bears more than pages and print. There is not just writing between the lines; I am touched — sometimes deeply — by the power of language arranged just so. In a book you carry that around with you like a treasure box, bearing the virtues and hauntings the author sought to approximate.
So I cannot help but think of these books as not only companions and friends but also as religious objects, holy relics that have acquired some ineffable quality — a presence, a character, a soul — because of what we have had together, what’s been shared, the interchange that has taken place between us. I do believe in the spirits of inanimate objects and how things may take on a life of their own. I know that is an old-school thought, perhaps more elementary than that — like some primitive superstition, a belief in numina, totems, blessings and grace and pieces of God invisible to the eye. I also think that, like other mysteries, faith is required for it to be true.
I do not know if others someday will feel similarly about books stored and hidden in digital devices, words and paragraphs scrolling across backlit screens. But I do know my life has been diminished, has become poorer since those many books got boxed and stacked away in my basement at home. My friends are gone, their spirits absent; I miss the daily communion. My glass and metal work station feels two-dimensional, bright and barren. I miss the wood grain and friendly clutter, the old chairs and the fierce reality of books staring me in the face.
I do not know if poets and scribes await me on the other side, or if there is another side. But I like to picture it. And I hold to the élan vital found in books as a happy clue to the divinity of things and an arrow pointing toward an afterlife — with Stegner, Styron and twinkling Sam Clemens grinning back at me.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.