What We Leave Behind
April 24, 2009
books pile up willy-nilly.
They rapidly fill bookcases as if they are piling, starving, into a soup kitchen; they overflow onto coffee tables, bar tops, the kitchen table and counters. Books lean against lamps, crowd and shove each other in nooks and crannies, elbowing for room. Many have been relegated to boxes and stacks for want of space.
These are the volumes that inhabit my home. My books, Suzie’s books, books left behind by my parents, my grandparents. Books I’ll never read again because their interests have long since faded, replaced by new passions, fledgling fancies. Some were fleeting, like passing ships; others took root and grew tall and hale.
I worry about their future after my passing. I worry who will tend to them. I shudder that they’ll be discarded, burned as some relic of a life, unimportant. Who will pick through the spines and dustcovers of my journeys of the imagination and say, “Here are the remnants of a man’s dreams,” or will they say, “Here is old rubbish, worth nothing even in a yard sale.”
How I wish I could be sure that whoever comes to clean up the flotsam of my life will know what those books are: All my expeditions and adventures. All my meanderings and wanderings. The places they have taken me! The things I have seen in the mind’s eye, conjured by the deft stroke of a pen. Or a word processor, it doesn’t matter. It’s the words that matter, the tight bound pages, the hard, leathery or cloth covers.
They are the most loyal of old friends. They have been here for all my ups and downs. Only Middleton and Ruark witnessed the bountiful tears shed after my father’s funeral; the hours and hours I spent worrying about this and that, when my only confidants were Maclean and Papa and Tolkien. They have been constants in a dark night and a bright, blue day.
Will someone toss them into a fire? Pack them into cardboard boxes and stick them in an attic for the rats to chew? I know Suzie won’t, if I depart before her. But if we’re both gone a thousand distant lands, a thousand wandering souls, heroes and villains, boats and bridges, will face an uncertain fate.
The voices in them might be silenced, but of course, there are in most cases thousands more out there of the same book. In some cases, very few. Yet it’s the part of me that exists within them that I fret over. The spark of imaginative leap from meeting Tom Bombadil; the nervous sweat of facing maneater lions with Patterson in Tsavo; the holding-of-my-side and struggling to breathe in the hilarity of McManus and Zern; the vast, wild, scented and textured landscapes of London and the undersea realms of Verne. Perhaps there are thousands more of each, but these are mine and I took something from each of them that became the part of me that is in turn within them.
What is there of value in these jutting, slumping, leaning piles of books? Their pages yellow, their spines crackling, like my own aging, but our stories are fresh and can be lived over, and over, again. I want someone to relive them. Someone to take the road ever on and on, fish with Hemingway on the Big Two-Hearted River, hunt with Ruark and the Old Man, live with an old red dog in the Utah wilderness and build a cottage along a lonely pond called Walden.
I want someone to feel the comfort in their tight bindings, the reassuring lilt of their tales and the adventure within their pages. I want someone to think of me as they weep at the end of Middleton, reflect deeply over Rachel Carson, thrill with chills by Shirley Jackson, find solace in Leopold.
If I stand and touch my finger along their titles, the stories leap out at me like sudden revelation. They have molded my life. Verne set me first in front of an antique Underwood typewriter to copy his story and pretend I had written it myself; later, it was Middle Earth that set me about my own storytelling and still later, Stephen R. Donaldson lit a flame in my consciousness that burns white hot even today, with but a single line:
He could hear the river contemplating itself in the distance.
Pure magic, that, in a few perfect words. My own words stumbled and fell over each other, but soon I found that voice, the one mostly mine, and the books smiled from their shelves and tables in approval.
There were the first wild tales, abandoned during adolescence, then reared again their bright-eyed, fanged and finned heads decades later. Ruark stirred old melancholy when he said the Old Man “knows pretty near close to everything. And mostly he ain’t painful with it. What I mean is that he went to Africa once when he was kid, and he shot a tiger or two in India, and he was in a whole mess of wars here and yonder. But he can still tell you why the quail sleep at night in a tight circle or why turkeys always fly uphill.”
T.H. White, E.B. White, Thurber, Black Elk, Chief Joseph, Dee Brown…they lounge around the house with stories tightly closed, but ready to be opened and revealed at a moment’s notice. That they’ll never feel another hand or speak to another mind is horrifying. Death, sure as mortal finality. I’ll never forget the shudder that wracked through me when I first read the Fireman’s declaration of satisfaction at burning any and all books in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:
It was a pleasure to burn.
My father, who struggled through high school English, cherished Voltaire. A faded, cracked set of “the classics” occupied a built-into-the-wall shelf in his bedroom. He could spout a few bits of Tennyson, and a cornucopia of the Apostles. Thumbing through those ghostly old books, I puzzled on my own Milton’s meaning when he intoned:
To sit in darkness
Hatching vain empires
And I marveled at Auden, the vision within:
The stars are dead; the animals will not look:
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.
Those are the ghosts that haunt me and my books. The dread of them, and the promise of them. I spend my days on a computer screen, rent movies and watch a little television. I won’t read a “book” on e-book or Adobe PDF, it’s not a book anymore, it’s a fuzzy mirror image of a book, a shadow.