On Monday this week I went to my local library to get a book for a trip out to San Diego, in the golden state of California where the air smells of redwoods and red wine. There is a general truth of life that people like me do not get to have vacations, but that is a general truth, and once in a while when fate grows inattentive I sneak away and manage a little something. So I went out this week for a couple of days to see my friends from Warsaw (I mean the real Warsaw, in Poland), friends who travel more than anybody I’ve ever known. This was the third country where I’ve met up with these dear friends.
And now I’m off topic. Of course if you’re a regular reader of this blog you’re thinking “Topic? Since when did he start having a topic?” So here’s my topic. On the wall of my local library was a quote that held me there a minute reading it, as it talked about the fact that many aspects of human existence come and go, even empires and cities rise and fall, but books remain.
This quote captures the idea that there is not merely a power, but a life in books, as though there is a spirit that goes beyond the physical object. By this light, when I behold a book, whether it is a paper codex (fancy talk for “normal book”), a conceptual download inside some type of e-reader, or a book that has almost literally become a spirit, residing in the “cloud” to be called forth anywhere in the world that we can connect—whatever its form, the book is a magical combination of thoughts and language, a combination that touches what we really are. Our bodies change, age, grow old, die, yet our thoughts are still there speaking. It’s as if our thoughts can exist independently of our body.
And listen to this. From the library I drove to a drug store to fill a prescription, and unsure how long I might have to wait, I carried the book I had just checked out, The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd. I had gone looking specifically for something by her after hearing an interview on the radio. I was also motivated by the fact that she is a fellow Georgia writer.
At my drugstore, the pharmacy section has an open area in front with a low counter where we talk to the people working there. As I was waited on, I laid my book on the counter, and the young woman working there saw the book. She seemed to suddenly spark up with interest on seeing it, said something I didn’t catch, then took my order and walked to the back.
I didn’t wait long, but I had time to read almost two pages of the prologue before the same woman called my name. This time, as I went up to collect my prescription, she asked me what the book was. I admitted that I actually knew nothing about it, but I told her I had just read that it starts out with the protagonist saying she is in love with a Benedictine monk.
Having said this, I wondered whether such a plot might be offensive to the woman I was talking to. She was wearing a head scarf, which made me think she might be a religious Muslim, and I wondered whether she might find the idea of someone falling in love with a monk scandalous or offensive. (I don’t claim to be using much logic there.) Instead, my young clerk continued to show an interest, so I mentioned the fact that Sue Monk Kidd wrote The Secret Life of Bees, and that it was made into a good movie.
“I love to read,” the woman told me, and before she finished ringing up my purchase, she stopped to take a piece of paper and wrote down the name of the author. “I’ll look it up,” she said. I told her it’s worth it, and we smiled at one another, and I left.
I’ve been thinking about how the appearance of the book—an unknown book, for that matter—sparked such enthusiasm. Maybe there is an explanation here that is less interesting than the semi-mystical scenario I’m implying, but the effect this incident had on me was to illustrate the quote from the library. A book has a life beyond the pages, and the woman at the pharmacy wanted a connection to that life. Part of why I write is for people like her.