Years ago, after perhaps the most tragic event of my life, I found a job in a bookstore. I knew almost no one in the city in which I was living. I was emotionally numb, confused, sad, and angry with a God I wasn’t even sure existed. But I had my books, which I could buy at discount no less. The days that I either opened or closed the store and was by myself, I would down from the office perch and feel all the authors and all the stories. It was magical and nurturing. The books helped me survive.
Recently I have begun to seriously clean out my childhood home, which I also shared with my mother the last few years of her life. I never realized I could feel so emotionally raw and vulnerable. I found medical bills from my father, who died of cancer when I was a child. I found a letter my uncle wrote when my cousin was first institutionalized. I am revisiting tragedies, celebrations, parts of my life and my parents’ lives now ended. My neighbor, trying to be helpful, told me just to keep a box of Kleenex beside me and keep on throwing things out. But I couldn’t cry. Instead I got stupid, overwhelmed, and plain physically ill. Then, I went to the library and took out Jasper Fforde’s The Well of Lost Plots and laughed so hard that I felt like a relatively whole person again. (My comments will come later on in the week when I finish the book. I am savoring every last belly laugh.)
During these past few weeks I have felt as though books have once again thrown me a lifeline. One night when I had incapacitating insomnia, I imagined what it would be like to have someone make me a nice cup of red bush tea, like the characters in Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. Not only was I comforted by my memories from reading the books, but I was also comforted by the fact that I live in a world where thousand and thousands of people want to read about such gentleness and caring. Images from Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear, Jo Walton’s Among Others, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, Sharon Shinn Troubled Waters and Clifford D. Simak’s Way Station have also brought me tremendous peace in the past few weeks.
While I love a great adventure and a cleaver plot, relish a book where I learn something new, appreciate an innovative setting or a fresh way of conveying a story, I sometimes need books that can sustain me through difficult times. Novels can have the power to heal or to keep someone afloat until help arrives. Sometimes I wish there were rating scales for that: May Help Feel Better about the Human Race, Makes English Majors Laugh So Hard that They Forget Their World Is Falling Apart, Contains Beautiful Scenes that Can Be Replayed in Head When Surrounded by Something Really Unpleasant, Helps Feel Courageous and Able to Take on Any Foe.