Ink and Paper and Magic

As my daughter’s tenth birthday was approaching, we asked her what she’d like for presents. She had only one answer: “Books.” This, of course, delighted us, not that we needed any further proof that she’s following in our footsteps as a voracious reader. We took a trip to the used bookstore and found not only a small pile of birthday books for her, but also a bunch of treasures for other upcoming birthdays, anniversaries and just-for-fun (like the German copy of The Princess Bride that I got for myself). And as we brought bags of books home to a house with six or seven already-stuffed bookshelves, it occurred to me that I could probably wax eloquent for pages upon pages about how much I love books.

Just to start with, isn’t written language astonishing? The idea of something visual to represent speech is remarkable enough, but the alphabet – a system of discrete symbols representing each meaningful unit of sound – is probably the most important invention in history. How often do we consider its vast usefulness, its versatility, its simple elegance? We make fun of English spelling conventions, but honestly, for all the exceptions to the rules and odd variants, it works. It works so well that all I have to do is press the buttons on a keyboard in a certain order, and anyone who can read will instantly understand what I’m conveying, without having to hear me speak, without having to be anywhere near me. The Internet certainly couldn’t exist without the alphabet. Pretty much all modern technology is predicated upon the functionality of our writing system. It took awhile to develop, from pictographs to word-based symbols, to the concept of assigning a symbol to each individual phoneme. But once the concept stuck, it started to spread across the world. No wonder the Germanic peoples considered their runes sacred, infused with power. They might not have been literally magic, but those symbols undoubtedly contained something extraordinary. (For more on this, I’d highly recommended David Sasks’s Language Visible [hardcover]/Letter Perfect [paperback]. Fascinating stuff. And incidentally, once of the best books-as-presents my husband ever found for me.)

I don’t remember learning to read, except a general memory that I enjoyed going through the excellent Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons with my dad. It worked great, years later, for my daughter and son as well. But I remember always loving reading. It was just so exciting to pick up a book and decode the symbols into something meaningful. As a family of introverts, we spent a lot of time in various corners, curled up with books. My parents had to institute a “no reading at the table” rule so we could actually have conversations at mealtimes (and not spill food all over the pages of our books). We had a lot of trouble obeying that rule.

I love the tactile experience of reading. (Probably why I’ve resisted the e-book trend more than is rational). The feel of the pages, flipping them back and forth. Admiring the artwork and title design on the cover, imagining what the book might contain before opening it up. The stiff spine of a brand-new paperback. The worn, almost-splitting spine after it’s been read and re-read a dozen times. Slipping the dust jacket off a hardcover to see what it looks like beneath. Usually just a solid color, but somehow it still felt exciting. And the smell. I don’t know if there’s actually anything objectively pleasant about the smell of books, but as those smells have been associated with decades of reading enjoyment, they’ve become intrinsically associated with that enjoyment. Sometimes I just breathe it in and feel instantly calmer, happier.

New books. Old books. Different editions of favorite books. Omnibus editions of trilogies. Beautiful gold-leaf special editions. Marvelously cheap paperbacks. Books with maps of fantasy worlds. Books with glossaries and entire appendices in the back. Fiction, of course, but also old editions of textbooks that you can buy for a few bucks and pore over the glossy illustrations. Atlases. Encyclopedias, which are all but obsolete in the Wikipedia age. Giant display books full of glossy illustrations, tiny little ones you can carry in your pocket. Dictionaries of every type, foreign language and literary glossaries and musical terminology (I keep that one in my piano bench in case my piano students have questions I don’t know off the top of my head). Oh, and tons of plays, thanks to my theatre teacher husband. We’ve long since run out of any reasonable space for more books, and our first thought is always, “Better get more bookshelves.” Never, “We should probably cull out a a few of these.” We may have a problem….

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Just two of many crowded bookshelves.

I love them all, but novels are my favorite kinds of books. Stories, to me, are the most powerful glimpse into what it means to be human. A look at all those eternal questions: what does it mean to be human? How do we define good and evil? How does a person live the best kind of life? How do we govern ourselves; how do we balance freedom and security? What about God? The afterlife? Each book that explores these questions becomes a dialogue between the writer and the reader, an engagement in the realms of thought. And fiction is all the more powerful for being entertaining as well, exploring the questions in a way that doesn’t feel like preaching or didacticism. Someone who lives thousands of miles away or lived hundreds of years ago can speak to you right now, in the moment you read their words. Beautiful.

Fiction, and speculative fiction in particular, have been criticized as escapist. That’s nonsense. What’s wrong with escapism? Stepping out of the real world is often the best way to be able to process reality and re-engage with it in a stronger, healthier way. Making a narrative out of the confusing, chaotic elements of life is tremendously empowering; in fact, sometimes it’s the only way to process the really difficult stuff. I’ve mentioned some of the influential books in my life and how much those stories meant to me at various times. Were the stories real? No, but they were true. They carried truth, and lightened my understanding of things in my own life. Sure, it’s possible to get caught up in imaginary worlds to an unhealthy extent. It’s possible to get caught up in anything to an unhealthy extent. That’s not the fault of fiction. Words are powerful. How we use that power is up to us.