Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cherished and Inherited Books

A poem by Emory & Henry College professor Felicia Mitchell published in a recent issue of Blue Fifth Review provided me not only with a moment's pause and subsequent delight in her fine-tuned sensitivity, but also with the inspiration for this blog post. Here are some lines from the middle of her poem, "Zen and the Art of My Brother", a poem inspired by her brother's copy of the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

Inner peace is a state of mind.
I value quietness as much as my brother did,
the two-dimensional world of the book.
Inside his books, hard edges seem rounder,
like worry stones or river rocks.
When I am inside them,
I am almost inside my brother inside himself.

Felicia, a long distance friend and pen pal, lost her brother, John Henry when she was 20 and he was 21. In a short essay accompanying the poem, she tells how she keeps this book of her brother's on her desk at college, "as much for the fact that his hands held it as for what it contains."

I couldn't agree with her more on the tactile resonance of books which used to belong to people we loved. By the time I was age seven or eight, reading Little Women and The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, or the Little House books, not only did I very much want to own and keep my favorite books on a special shelf, I became fascinated by the books on my father's bookshelf. I loved to study their titles. I sensed they had totemic powers. Some of the books were well worn, as if Dad had carried them from pillar to post, and I knew they meant something to him. You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe: that title mystified me until I got a little older. Dad was from North Carolina, and he had a complete collection of Thomas Wolfe. The View from Pompey's Head by Hamilton Basso: to me that seemed like a good book title since that was what I most liked about the newly discovered joy of reading chapter books, that I could get inside someone else's mind (and life and soul).

I own a few of Dad's books now. He passed away in 2003. I especially value the ones he wrote his name in. Also, if there were clippings or bookmarks left in the books, I keep them. My mother has more of Dad's books, which I'll probably inherit some day. I took down his copy of Butterfield 8 by John O'Hara from my bookshelf last night and the paper cover turned to dust in my hands. But the binding and book pages are in excellent condition. I have been meaning to read that book ever since I adopted it....

There is much debate in the library world and elsewhere as to whether the book as we know it will continue much longer. I hear my fellow librarians (as well as Oprah) extolling the virtues of Kindle, an electronic book reading device. Nothing against the thing, and it seems to make them happy, but I am a real book with real pages person. I like the heft and weight of books, their covers, their pages with or without deckled edges, even their aromas when freshly printed. If books are no longer three dimensional objects, they can not be passed along from one to another in quite the same way. I like turning the pages of a book my Dad once read. Call me sentimental, but loving books is in my blood. Inheriting someone's Kindle doesn't quite inspire the same warm, fuzzy feelings.

So kudos to Felicia for her poem and essay, both fine forays into the multiple connections we make reading and turning the pages of a book once owned by someone we have lost. The intimacy of reading the same book they loved, the very same book, is one of the most therapeutic ways of grieving I've ever heard of. As well as bushy eyebrows and the shape of my feet, my Dad passed along his love of reading. I think it's time to read Butterfield 8.


Don Wentworth said...

Thanks for the great post ...

Don @ Lilliput Review

Felicia Mitchell said...

Thank you so much, Keddy. I love what you say about books and also your Dad. The day before my father's funeral, I thumbed through a set of old poetry anthologies of his that my mother gave me. I could see bookmarks and notes near poems he treasured. I felt very close. I have these books in my study at home where I write most of my poems. I still read them. I remember reading them when I was six (and memorizing Teasdale's poem "The Coin" for school).