When I was 23, I lost two friends, and it was all because I was reading.
My young husband and I were on vacation with our good pals, Diane and Jim. I was right in the middle of Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest and it was so vividly real and fantastically interesting, I just couldn’t believe my luck. One morning, Jim blurted out, “What’s so important in that big, thick book? Is it more interesting than us?” After my initial confusion (Why is he interrupting me? Should I lie and say they were more interesting?), I bent my head to just finish that paragraph—and then I was lost again.
Things were never the same between us.
And that was okay. Because for a long time in my life, people didn’t make as much sense as books did. Mention a book, and a time of my life comes alive, because the book I read then was often more real than anything else. The other day, I saw that All God’s Children Got Wings, a play by Eugene O’Neill, was being revived—and I was swept back to the summer I decided to read all of O’Neill’s plays. I was 17, and theoretically, a counselor at a day camp. But who I really was that summer was an ardent audience member in a darkened theater, my heart expanding with the exquisite, sad knowledge of how regret can shape a life.
Anne of Green Gables? I read it in third grade, absorbing the affectionate friendship between Anne and Diana, and resolving to someday speak from my heart to a “kindred spirit.” Kipling’s The Jungle Book? I’m catapulted back in time to a spring morning, 1954, sitting in the front row of Mr. Redkopf’s fourth grade classroom. I may have been sitting quietly but my insides were thrilling with excitement: I’d just met Mowgli, the boy who lives with wolves and Rikki Tikki Tavi the mongoose who saved a family. (In Hawaii on vacation last month, the tour guide showed us a park where mongooses lived. My heart leapt up to finally see one!)
I loved watching the creatures burrow and pop up again., but the book’s depiction of mongoose character was far more interesting. And who’s to say? I trusted these wonderful writers who imbued the natural world, and history—and life’s conflicts—with wonder and wisdom, which I was happy to pocket, and savor.
One of my favorite books of all time is One Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes. It’s a children’s story, about a girl who wears the same faded dress to school every day. The other girls tease Wanda, especially when she insists she has “one hundred dresses” in her closet at home. The plot twists and turns and educates. I read it in second grade but re-read it in sixth, when a sad little girl in my class was bullied by the most “popular” girls. I refused to join in the teasing – but it wasn’t my family, busy arguing and jockeying for power, who gave me that value. It was a book: One Hundred Dresses.
The other day, I met with a new friend, a philosophy professor at CU. What was she doing lately, I asked, and the answer was, she’d gotten a grant to write a paper on Eleanor Estes. My heart leapt up.
“Yes, she wrote the Moffat books, and One Hundred Dresses…”
Suddenly, we were talking a mile a minute, sharing remembered details from that beloved book. I realized I was talking to a true kindred spirit. Our lunch spilled to almost three hours and we warmly made plans to meet again soon.
It wasn’t a bad way to go, all things considered, to measure out my life with books. With some special people, books were not an obstacle, but a shortcut—to a friendship of the heart.