I was thinking this morning how grateful I am for small things, the cup of coffee I was drinking for instance and the person who makes it every morning; the way the bright sunshine banishes the dark the moment I open the bedroom blinds; and books - how grateful I am for books! Remember when computers were beginning to be something ordinary people could have in their homes? Books will soon be obsolete, we were warned. I shuddered at the thought. How awful would it be to no longer curl up in a comfortable chair and travel out from your room, in imagination, to meet people and see places you had little chance of meeting or seeing in your own neighborhood? There would still be stories but now you'd be reading them by the harsh, glaring light of a computer.
My earliest memory of loving a book was turnng the pages of "The Ugly Duckling". I was enchanted by the pictures of the fluffy little ducklings, especially by the one who was so different from all the others. At that time I was just learning to use scissors and you can guess the rest. I took my beloved book and used it to practice my cutting skills, to my later dismay. Such are the tragedies of toddlerhood.
My first chapter books were a birthday gift from a family friend, an older lady who had introduced my parents to each other. "Auntie" Ita, with the gift of those three "Katy" books, expanded my reading horizons, sealing her place in my heart forever.
With Heidi I travelled to Switzerland. I loved her gruff Grandfather, the more because one of mine was already gone when I was born, the other died when I was 3 or 4. Little Women took me to America again (I'd been there once before with the "Katy" books) little guessing that I'd one day live there! Of the 4 sisters, as a tree climbing tomboy, I identified most with Jo. I wanted to be Jo, but, being young and fickle, I soon decided, upon reading the Mallory Towers books, that it'd be more fun to be Darrell Rivers and go away to boarding school, out from under the thumbs of the nuns, having midnight feasts and all kinds of adventures. I devoured those books!
In secondary school we were introduced to Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Elliot. When I found an excerpt I liked in our English reader it would send me haring off on my bicycle, across town, to the library, in search of the book it was taken from.
In my teens I spent most of one summer up a tree at the end of our garden reading "Gone with the Wind". I had a cozy nest there, hidden from my mother and safe from pesky siblings. The only person who spied me there was my mother's friend, our neighbor Kitty, who would yell from her kitchen window "Molly W! You're going to fall out of that tree and break your arse!" (Kitty was not one to mince words, and, to her credit, she never ratted me out.)
I still have an old and battered copy of "Rebecca" that was a gift to my mother from a beau who predated my dad - the road not taken! Who would I be if she'd married him? Would my name be Rebecca?
By the time "The Thorn Birds" came my way, I already had two children of my own. Sitting up in bed reading it one night, I realised my eyesight was no longer perfect and I was going to need glasses.
Years later, I found Angela's Ashes and when I got to the last page, went straight back to the first to start over again. McCourt was writing about my hometown but from a completely different angle than what had been my experience growing up. Which only goes to show, no matter how well you think you know a place, you probably only know a very small part of it, mostly colored by your own life in that place.
Killing time at a library in Oregon a few years ago, waiting for an Uber, I came upon Niall Williams. Hmm. Familiar name, but why? Then I remembered having, many years ago, read a book he'd written with his wife about how they'd left high-paying jobs in New York and moved to Ireland to live in a falling down cottage in Co. Clare that had been left to her by her grandfather. Conditions were spartan and it rained all the time, but they persevered and here he was again! When I returned home I sought out "This is Happiness" at my local library and fell in love. Reading it was like taking a trip back to my roots without ever getting on a plane.
And now, for the last few weeks I've been enthralled with "Middlemarch". Where had it been all my life? I'm guessing the nuns balked at it being "a book for grown ups" as Virginia Wolfe famously called it. Safer to stay with "Mill on the Floss." What was most remarkable to me was how spot-on Eliot's perceptions are about us humans. Though first published in 1871, more than 150 years ago, her characters could step out of those pages, get a 2022 hairstyle, some modern clothing, drive a car instead of a horse drawn carriage and no one would be able to tell they came from another era, because under the skin, they are moved and motivated by the same needs and emotions as we are.
Without books I think I'd have lost my mind during Covid. We couldn't get together with friends but, fortunately, there were legions of new friends waiting for us between the covers of books. One of the great pleasures of reading, for me, is knowing I'm not alone. All the people who love the books I love are automatically my friends. Which isn't to say that if we don't like the same books we can't be friends. Some of the people I love most have different reading tastes and that's what makes the world go 'round! To get lost in books, to be moved by them to both laughter and tears, makes me realise how connected we all are by our shared humanity; that, for all our arguments and disagreements, especially in today's social environment, we are more like each other than different.
As a hopeless card carrying Luddite I'm glad those dire predictions have not come true, and those of us who choose to can still curl up in a cozy corner (or a nest in a tree) with the comforting heft of a book in our hands, glasses on our noses, imagination on "Go!"