All books entail meeting people, and I think in nearly all cases when we are meeting people in books we are meeting the personified parts of ourselves reflected back at us. Sometimes they are the hidden and secret parts. The parts that we didn’t know were there. The parts that we didn’t know had a name. The parts that show us how mysterious we are, even to ourselves.
Sometimes it’s the parts that we know so deeply, so well, and so personally that we are most baffled to see exhibited and portrayed outside of ourselves. We are taken aback, awestruck and joyously dumbfounded because in that moment of meeting we come to know that we are not alone.
Every book is a journey, as Rebecca Solnit suggests, “and at the end you are not the same person you were at the beginning”, but somehow the transformation of the journey has made us more ourselves than we have ever been before.
I was late to arrive at such a realization. I wish I had learned to build big brick buildings from books as a child. Perhaps, I would have found surety and confidence sooner. Perhaps, I would have felt safer earlier. Perhaps, I wouldn’t have been so behind in understanding what it means to belong. Perhaps, I wouldn’t feel so great a need to make up for lost time as I do now. I was an adult before I truly understood the sheltered soundness available within “the sanctuary of reading”.
It took a long time for me to know how to be rescued by books, and longer still before I learned that I could build a refuge with them and from them. I wish I had known then what I know now, but I’m grateful that I found out when I did, otherwise there might not even be a “now”.
It’s strange to think that so great a gift could come from someone we have never met. But, that’s what a book is; “a gift a writer made for strangers”, as Solnit suggests. It is a peculiar yet obvious truth, but as Susan Orlean says “ You don’t need to take a book off the shelf to know that there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you…someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.” Perhaps even more miraculous and mystifying is the fact that these same voices not only invite us to listen, but they also invite to participate. They each call us to contribute to the grand and sweeping conversation that stretches beyond the particularities of time and place, and yet rests at the very heart of our millennia of being human.
In being given books, I have been and continue to be the recipient of the great gifts of being seen, being understood, and being less alone. Everything I’ve ever done since has been an attempt to return the favor.
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