A Story Within A Story
For the past several days, I’ve been on a vigilant treasure hunt. I’ve been eagerly looking for the rainbow, searching every nook and cranny for a reason to continue to believe in optimism, in hope. I’ve answered every phone call wondering what piece of hope will be imparted to me before the end of the call. I’ve basically attacked every inkling of sickness and extreme fatigue by showing it who’s boss: we’ve had a busy weekend. Every time I started feeling faint or pain, I shocked it out of my system by taking pain killers, something even my doctors say I don’t do enough. I raided my trunks of books tonight, shifted through what I have left of stories dear and precious to me. I did this because being surrounded by thousands of pieces of paper upon which words are written quiets my soul and brings comfort to my heart. I haunted an antique bookstore for nearly two hours, filled my nostrils with the precious scent of yellowed pages in first edition copies of Hawthorne and Faulkner. First, I found a couch in the bookstore to sit on and read but then, as I grew bolder, I found a corner and sat at the bottom of enormous bookshelves, reading several pages from a random book before gingerly replacing it to select another. Cozier than a library, I felt at home. I felt happy.
Randomly, I pulled a book off the shelf and flipped it open. Stuck to one of the dog-eared pages was a 1978 postcard with a hand written signature in pencil. I couldn’t read the name but it made me smile. Then it made me think about whoever put the postcard in the book. What made that person select this book out of all the other books she saw to read? The signature was written in what was probably a woman’s penmanship, the book was one by an author I hadn’t heard of. What made it stand out in 1978? What was the reader needing, what was she hoping to find within the pages of a book? This made me think about readers in general and why we read at all: what makes it so powerful and addictive?
I thought about the books I’ve loved and they really fall into three categories: historical romance, realism and classics. What made me choose one over the other, I wondered. When I read a Judith McNaught, for instance, what am I trying to find? That answer is easy: I am longing, in those books, for an escape. I want to be whisked away to a land where women are respected AND protected, where strong men find conversation a beautiful thing and where I can imagine I’m a beautiful princess. I want to forget, then, for a little while, reality. I want to pretend, I want a reason to believe in romance and love, commitment and hope. I want a world of the 1800s, when crocheting and reading were the primary distractions, where children played outside with dolls made of tissue paper or linen. I want to forget I belong to a world of computers, television and fast food. I want a dream.
Realistic books are books like mine. “The Book Thief” would be in this category, as would “One Child”, “Room” or pretty much anything by Anna Quindlen. These books do not allow me to escape reality. Instead, they serve another important purpose: they remind me that I am not alone and that others have the same thoughts, idiosyncrasies and ideas that I have. When I read these books (and these make up the majority of my reading selections), I am longing to find a character with a life that I can relate to, an author whose mind works in a way I understand. I am tired of feeling inferior and weird, I long to be accepted and normal. These books not only make me think, they also help me put words to my own thoughts and feelings, they validate my emotions.
The classics are just that: classic. I read Faulkner or Twain or Hawthorne when I need to lose myself in exemplary writing, passionate stories of an era gone by, something lyrical and poetic: kind of how, even though most of the time I want music with lyrics… Every once in awhile, my soul hungers for music itself , an uplifting piece of instrumental work. Haunting originality coupled with brilliant prose, the classics make me want to live in a library. They offer me a taste of both: in “To Kill A Mockingbird” I am swept away by the imagery of lazy, idyllic summer days while also being encouraged to think about deeper and more lasting social issues.
The comfort reading offers is powerful because the right book at the right time can offer us hope by reminding us that no matter who we are, we are part of the human race, and our lives matter. Whoever put the postcard in the book was not the first person to ever read that exact book—maybe she left it in a restaurant, or a picture show. Maybe she accidentally forgot it in a doctor’s office, and it was gone, picked up and found interesting by someone else. And who was that someone else? I have no idea, except that, whoever it was, saw fit to leave the post and from 1978 between the pages. Would I have left it, or would I have tossed it? How many people ran across the book and decided that its story was made richer by the really irrelevant postcard? Did they wonder for whom the postcard had been intended? Did they wonder about the woman whose name was scrawled on the first page in pencil—or did tat signature belong to a different owner of the book? More importantly, what did each of the owners think of the actual book itself? The book is now missing its jacket, so I don’t know what it’s about–whatever the plot, did the readers enjoy it, did it provide an escape from reality, or remind them that there’s hope even in the midst of reality? It’s full of just black and white marks on softly yellowed paper, a collection of letters that, when put together, tell a story, share an experience, entreat the senses. There have been books that made me laugh out loud in hilarity, there have been books that made my face turn red from embarrassment, there have been several that have moved me to tears and there’s been one or two that have left me downright angry. They invoke my emotions, take me on a journey…. They make me happy, yes, but the comfort they provide, and the histories behind them, soothe my weary heart. Words mean something–what they mean may vary from individual to individual but they mean something nonetheless.
I found a story today. I haven’t read it yet, have no idea what it’s about and probably overpaid for it. But I’ll read it and, gingerly replacing an old postcard when I come to page 78. Maybe I’ll put it in the same spot its in now, or maybe I’ll add a little bit more to the book’s history by using the postcard as a bookmark, imagining the lives of the people who have held the same book in their hands, feeling connected to strangers by own shared decision to read this particular book. Ultimately, you see, that’s what everyone wants: to be accepted, to belong and belong we do, to the circle of life that brings a piece of literature into multiple strangers’ lives. I wonder who will read the book after me, and I hope that whoever it is will keep the postcard in the book because that postcard is soaked in history, bound with the book itself now, adding to the story just as effortlessly as if the writer had added it.
In my imagination, bookstores never close. When the store closes, the characters from the books come to life, hopping out of the pages of hundreds of books and greet each other. They talk about their individual stories, they roll their eyes at meddlesome authors who added their own two cents worth to the pages, they make plans to visit each other’s stories and they love and fight with the characters who co-exist with them in their stories. I imagine that my characters come to life too, and complain about how long it takes me to go to sleep because the later it is that I go to bed, the longer they have to wait before coming alive. When the dark scares me or I hear strange noises at can’t explain, I conjure up scenarios, imagine that Abrielle just started a food fight with Clayton or that Anna and Ash are trying to fly a kite inside. It helps me close my eyes, it helps me take the edge off the fear, it comforts me. And most of all, it makes me feel normal by remembering that some author elsewhere imagine scenarios similar to mine… And that someone after me will read the books and form connections with the characters. For just as true as it is that life goes on, so it also is that hope exists.