Shelved life

Do you think books are alive? I think I kinda do.

I've just finished reading the new espionage novel Jericho's Fall, by Stephen L. Clark, and I have some things to say about it, but there's this paragraph near the end of the story that I could relate to. I could relate to it so strongly that for a few minutes I forgot about the fact that I am ignoring all ordinary responsibilities this morning so that I can finish the book. It's really a good story. But there's this:
"One of the wide windows to the living room had burst, and embers were flaking in through the mesh. Soon the books would catch, and then the house would start. Beck ached, unexpectedly, for the loss of Jericho's vast library, but there was nothing to be done."
I read that, and then all at once I was no longer thinking about the story - despite the fact that my heroine needed to get out of there or be incinerated along with the books. I, too, was aching for the fictional loss of the fictional character's fictional and unnamed books. Sheesh! It didn't bother me when other stuff got destroyed in this story. It didn't even bother me too much when some of the characters got mangled - or killed. (But that, I think, is because this is a very plot-driven book and not a character-driven or relationship-driven one. Interesting to read, but also emotionally safe, involving no necessity of kleenex.)

So, do you think books are living beings? When I think about my own library, I get a bit maternal - the books are not just things for me. I like most of the things I've chosen to be in my household. I like my flatware pattern and my plates, for instance. But I have only the fluffiest of sentimental attachment to them, really. Replacing them would be kind of fun. (And if any more forks go missing, the fun will be a home-making imperative.) The stuff like bed linens and bathroom towels - that's just fabric. There's lots more where that came from, and a zillion patterns, color combinations, and textures, and it's just the same thing as pots of paints. But the books? Each one is a kind of a person somehow.

Only, they're not all of equal value - people are. Books are more or less alive, more or less full of an ability to talk to the bones and heart and imagination of the reader, more or less connected to the incarnate ideas that walk about and eat and vote and couple and hope. And some books get adopted - personally. It's funny to me to watch, but all three of my kids choose books that way. They find volumes to adopt. They stand at the shelves of Powell's, and sort through the volumes available in the title they're looking for, and choose the one volume they want to adopt. (Often, it's an abandoned and marked-down orphan, previously owned by someone obviously too calloused to care for it.)

I don't know what I'd do if embers began to flake in through burst windows in this house. I would lament over losses like my piano - we've been friends and co-conspirators in music and childhood, and then adulthood, parenting, Christmas decorating and household atmosphere for so long that losing the heavily carved wood and sounding board would be losing a friend. I would weep over the loss of photos, too - but the people they captured are alive and real and in possession of immortal souls. Photos are just stuff.

But the books! My library. My husband's library. The books left behind by our kids, boxed up and ready for the next round of, "Have you seen ...?" And the books left behind by the childhoods in this family - the hopes and dreams and ideas and imagination passed to sleepy children at night, and gobbled up by wide-awake, energetic kids in the middles of countless days. Just thinking about it makes my heart push against its edges and makes it hard to breathe.

It would be horrible if this little ramshackle, inherited and constant remodeling project (aka, my house) went up in flames, but knowing that the books were in there would probably kill me in ways other deaths could not. I think it's because most of the books we have in this house are alive.

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