“I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.” | Anna Quindlen
Last week I had the privilege of attending the birthday party of a dear friend’s daughter. The party was hosted at a local pizza dive, and the guests took up 85% of the restaurant. Kids of all ages scampered everywhere, blowing whistles, tearing into goodie bags, clinging to our hands and legs like little koala bears. When it was time to cut the cake (Yo Gabba Gabba) I found myself sitting next to a little girl just learning her alphabet letters. As we patiently waited for the slices of cake to make their way to our end of the table, she amused herself by pointing at letters on the menu and saying each one out loud.
“P-I-Z-Z-A,” she said, then turning to me to ask, “What word is that?”
“Pizza,” I explained. We worked our way down the menu, through salad and pasta to wine before a massive wedge of birthday cake arrived and carried her away to the land of icing roses.
The encounter with the little birthday guest left me struggling to recall a time before I knew how to read. I remember methodically matching up velvety cut-out alphabet letters on the floor of my kindergarten classroom, but for the life of me I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a fluent member of the world of words.
Imagine 5 minutes of your day without reading. Imagine all you would miss. An e-mail. A text message. A tweet. Instructions on a bottle of bubble bath. Lyrics to a favorite song. The nutritional label on a cereal box. A love letter. The magazine article you distract yourself with in the dentist’s waiting room.
Words are everywhere.
A month ago a friend asked me to do some reflecting on books and bookstores.
This is the post that ran out onto the page.
Act I: Puppies and Dog-Ears
I find myself drawn to bookstores – alone and wandering – regularly. I’ve gone to book stores after break-ups, on boring rainy days, on lunch breaks, in pursuit of the perfect gift and more often than not, for no reason at all. Big bookstores and little bookstores, new bookstores and used bookstores (the latter being my favorite.) There is something that calms my mind and soothes my spirit when I think about all that lies between the walls of and covers within a bookstore.
Words and pictures and paper, this much we know, but dive deeper, and we find all. Biographies telling life stories the way they really happened and tall tales telling life stories the way people wished they really happened. Photographs of children and dogs and bridges and signs. Great great grandmothers’ recipes. Thoughtful, detailed instructions on how to repair your broken car, your broken investment portfolio or your broken heart. Superheroes soaring through space and 1001 tips on how to do laundry. Happy endings and endings to break a heart. Stories of new life and lives snuffed out. They’re all there.
Row after row, like puppies in a pet store window, “Pick me! Read me! Take me home!” they shout. “Scoot over. You’re crowding me!” they say to the other books. “Hey lady! I’m great! Meeeee! It’s me you want!!”
My method for choosing books is, at best, irreverent. I wander. Against the better advice of conventional wisdom, I sometimes judge a book by its cover. Much to my delight, this methodology fails me rarely. It becomes less about me finding the right book, and more about the book finding me.
I’ll see it on a shelf of hundreds and pull it from its perch, noting the heft and weight in my hand. I’ll read the back cover, then the inner flap if it has one. Then I’ll flip to some page, probably somewhere between 72 and 136 and read a paragraph or two. If the connection is there, I’ll find it quickly.
In used books I always look for dog-eared pages. I flip to them, wondering what – at one time – someone found important enough to remember. Was it a quote that helped them through a moment in their life? A character who reminded them of someone they once knew? Was it even a memory at all? Perhaps it was just a blip in time. An instinctual reaction, rather than a deliberate effort. A little notch to make it easier to come back again one day. Maybe it was the page they were on when they got a phone call or had a conversation that changed their life. Maybe it was her stopping point when she needed to flip onto her back and face the sun to tan her front side. Maybe it was something to hold onto for a nervous few hours spent in the waiting room watching the doors open and shut, open and shut, waiting for any sign or word.
I always check the dog-eared pages. Their secrets and knowledge lie in the tiny folds of their triangles and they don’t give them up. Much like graffiti on walls, “So-and-So was here,” they say, “Just thought you’d like to know.”
Act II: The iSad
A couple weeks ago I saw a disturbing advertisement. The ad itself was pleasant enough, for the iPad, I believe. It showed an iPad in the foreground, a father’s legs and his little daughters legs stretched out beyond the iPad, blurred just a bit as they read together. On the screen the little girl was reaching out her hand to “turn” the “page” of the electronic book.
I had an immediate reaction. I suppose from a marketing standpoint, some might argue that makes it effective, as I sit here weeks later still able to recall the ad in great detail. Nonetheless, it didn’t feel great. My alarms started going off. Of course I love that technology enables all of us greater access to all sorts of information, in record time no less, and I admire anything that has the power to promote literacy and learning, but I couldn’t help but ask myself ”Is this the future flashing before my eyes? Will the iPad ad become the norm?”
It was all I had to see to wonder if, in a generation or two, children will turn pages only on a touch screen. It was all I had to see to wonder if sooner rather than later, children won’t know the pride that comes from checking out their first library books, or the thrill of feeling them bounce along in backpacks on the bus ride home. It was all I had to see to know that in a short while, when we talk about that glorious “old book smell,” they’ll scrunch up their little noses and say “Yuck. That sounds awful!”
So many of my happy childhood memories were accompanied by books.
I still recall those final precious moments of the day, one of my parents perched gingerly at the edge of the bed, the hum of voices and turning pages as I drifted further and further away. I’d wake in the morning to find the book resting on the bedside table, waiting for another adventure when it was time for pajamas again.
I still recall feeling like I had won a prize any time I brought home a book embossed with a Caldecott Award. And while it’s true you can run your fingers over a touch screen, I ask myself if there a day not so far away that little fingers won’t recognize the feeling of a golden seal underneath their little tips and think to themselves “This book is something special.”
Will all the tiny bookshelves in the all the tiny rooms one day become extinct?
Act III: A Dream Dog-eared
As I wander the bookstores, I often find myself drawn to the art aisle and the cookbook aisle and the local history aisle. I like the map shelf and I especially like the rack of leather-bound journals, with their perfect leather covers just waiting to be stuffed in knapsacks, nestled next to passports on some great adventure. In the end, with any luck, they’ll return looking like weathered sails and weathered sailors with amazing stories to tell.
I have no children of my own. I have no upcoming birthday parties to attend with brightly colored packages in tow. For these reasons, you will understand why it baffled me when I found myself standing in the children’s literature section on Saturday morning with friendly little honeybees buzzing all around my knees. There were bouncing curls and untied shoelaces and big people chairs and little people chairs. In the nooks and crannies I found parents hunkered down with their little ones or holding children in their laps, reading softly as their smaller selves followed along in amazement.
One little boy was reading with his mother. When he turned the page I heard her say “That’s a peacock.” ”WOWWW!” the little boy exclaimed, “LOOK AT ALL HIS EYES!” The mother chuckled and then went on to explain those were, in fact, feathers, not eyes. The little boy, however, did not seem so convinced. He knew what he saw.
Across the room a little girl held out a book yelling “MOMMY LOOK AT THE UNICORN! LOOK HOW CUTE HE IS!! ISN’T HE CUTE!!??” and without missing a beat, her mother replied “Oh my! Yes, yes he is a cute unicorn!”
Beside them, another mother sat at a short little table, so short in fact, her knees were practically at her chin. She was reading a book of her own while her daughter played nearby. It appeared the little girl had selected a book adorned with a set of those plastic “googly eyes” on the front cover. “Googly! Googly! Gooooooogly! (pause) GOOGLY! GOOOOOGLY!” the little girl repeated over and over and over, shaking the book, clearly pleased by how the word rolled off her tongue. Her mother smiled and continued reading her grown-up book at the too tiny table. It tickled me to think that in a little girl’s kingdom, “googly” is still just an incredible adjective to be used freely and often, rather than the largest search engine in the world.
As I stood perusing the shelves, half waiting for a book to find me even though I have no children or birthday parties, half looking for copies of classics from my own childhood, I heard a sweet voice to my left. “Excuse me,” she said, “May I have that book please?” I followed her little finger up to a shelf that was near my shoulder, well out of her reach, and was happy to pass it down to her from my atmosphere. “Thank you!” she exclaimed, scampering off to reunite with her friend. “Thank you” her mother mouthed me from across the room. I smiled.
A few minutes later I found the little girl from the shelf and her friend sprawled on the floor marveling over the book I had handed her. It was a book on the workings of the human body simplified for children. I stood far enough away as not to disrupt their conversation, but close enough to hear the little shelf girl explaining to her friend how the book was amazing because it is interesting AND “could teach them a lot of things.” I said a little prayer in that moment, hoping she’d hang on to her thirst for knowledge for years and years to come.
And with that, I left the enchanted forest of friendly honeybees and made my way back into an adult world toward the front counter.
I truly believe every child deserves a Saturday morning in a bookstore doubting their mother’s knowledge of peacocks and marveling at the cuteness of unicorns. I truly believe every child deserves an opportunity to relish the smell of old books and tuck it into their olfactory memory. I truly believe every child deserves to feel the excitement of an extra couple pounds hopping around in their backpack just waiting to be read.
I have a goal this week. I’m going to say googly more. And rejoice in it.
And after that, I’m going to save the bookshelves.
It’s a dream dog-eared.