Our father used to tell us stories about a bookworm named Wally. Wally, a squiggly little vermicule with a red baseball cap, didn't merely like books. He ate them.
-Anne Fadiman, "Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader"
I thought I heard the young mother say, "Do you want a snack?" Her tattooed arms were loaded with books, her three children ranging in age from 6 to 13 or so, were restive, disobedient. Their mother was trying to distract them with promises of a snack, was that it? No, she'd said, "Do you want a smack?" I was a volunteer and decided to intervene, for the sake of the overwhelmed mom and the children. It was a rainy day, good for attendance the Gardiner Library Director, Nicole Lane, had told me when I arrived. She was right. The crowd was thick and included many children. And now this mom needed some help, so I helped by chatting up her adorable kids, and asking them lots of questions while their mom browsed more books. Hundreds were laid out neatly on tables in the community room for the annual book fair of the library, just down the road from me. I had taught a Haiku class there recently, admire the library's vitality as a community center and its devoted staff, and volunteered for a three-hour stint at the fair. Nicole instructed me on my responsibilities: straighten books on the tables, fill in spaces with boxed books under the tables, and answer questions, such as "Where are the children's books? Or "Where are the reference books?"
I tucked away my backpack and rain gear in a corner, thinking, well, I'll pile the books I want right here, then turned around and stood at attention for a few moments. Book lovers must have felt the vibe of my abiding interest in them and the books they had chosen. Many appeared in front of me like old friends continuing a conversation about the thrill of their finds. Men, women, small children, babies, all of them readers or readers in training. One dad had his baby in a sling and was bouncing her gently as he moved methodically from table to table. "That baby is already a reader," I said as I followed him. But he was too immersed in a book he'd picked up to answer me. Sometimes, when the din of the happy running around kids subsided, the room hushed in concentration and a palpable reverence.
I was a writer in a roomful of readers of all ages. I tried to pay attention to everyone's comments, so that I might be able to make use of them in my work, if that is possible. Is it possible? Probably not, but I enjoyed the conversations and I conducted informal surveys: "Do you also read electronically?" Just about everyone does, it seems. As do I. But all agreed: somehow it's not the same. These beautiful recycling books, bound and tactile, are so inviting, I thought.
I spotted four books I had donated and decided I missed them too much, I would buy them back. Thou shall not covet, I said to myself. During a culling before my most recent move, I promised myself and my husband I would only keep books I thought I'd reread—eventually—or needed for a project. Nice try.
What is it about these sacred objects? Well, that's just it, they are sacred to me. As a writer I understand the effort it takes to create a book, to make it work on the page. When it works, I want to own it as inspiration. I hope some readers feel the same about the words I have written. I suppose that is the goal in the end: to write something beyond the ephemeral that touches and engages the reader.
Twice during my three hour volunteer stint, a woman talked to me excitedly about the plot of a much-loved novel she had re-discovered amidst all the treasures. I listened attentively. The plots weren't of great interest to me, but no matter. The held physical book had become a bond between strangers, a talisman, one of many that found new homes that day.
If you are local, please join me for a banned book club I will be facilitating at the Gardiner Library in the fall. The schedule will be announced in their newsletter.