January 30, 2012

The paperback wall, and other formative literature

The New York Times ran an article about A Wrinkle in Time late last week, and when I read it this morning, I was surprised to find myself getting all emotional about it. Seeing the names was enough: Meg, Calvin, Charles Wallace. Mrs Whatsis, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. I was choked up - it had been a while.

Suddenly I feel the need to go buy Zoe a copy RIGHT NOW, even though I know she won't be ready for it for a few years. I told Charles, and he said, "You know, I've never read it."

And I almost cried. This situation needs to be remedied RIGHT NOW.

Because that book. Oh! That book. I loved it. I still love it. I'd read it right now, if I had a copy. When I was younger, I wanted to BE Meg, even though I hated math. Charles Wallace seemed like such a cool kid. And Calvin? Wow, a boy who was smart AND played basketball? Yes, I had a monster crush on him. I never thought I'd find a boy as cool as Calvin (Incidentally...I did).

Their journey stuck with me. The word Tesseract? I've never forgotten it. I can close my eyes and picture the drawing of a line with ants walking across it, first straight and then bent to create the shortest possible distance between the two end points.

The story had adventure. Danger. Just a little bit of romance and love. And in the end, the nerdy girl saved the day.

Oh. How I loved that book.


The article got me thinking about books I loved as a child/young adult, and wondering what books were important to others.

I loved a lot of the classics: Little Women, The Secret Garden, Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird. I still have copies of those books in my house today, and I leaf through the tattered pages on nights when sleep is elusive and I want to read something soothing.

But I also started in early on some not-classics, at least not in the canonical sense.

In their old house (my old house) my parents kept a giant bookshelf, custom-built by my father, which housed hundreds of old, beat-up paperbacks, all neatly in a row. The shelves were long and narrow; hardcovers need not apply here. When you sat near it, you could smell that paperback smell. If you love books, you know the one of which I'm speaking - of paper, mildew, ink. You can smell it whenever you step into a used bookstore, and I loved smelling it my own house.

Its shelves were a font of reading material for a younger me. There was a whole section devoted to the Stephen King classics. I started reading It when I was thirteen, and it took me the full school-year to read it.  After It, I moved on to Carrie and The Shining, allowing the words to terrify me, and also make me feel stronger for having been brave enough to continue reading.  Being brave was and always will be important to me.

There was a section of Holocaust literature - novels, memoirs, non-fiction accounts. Babi Yar. Auschwitz. Names which were so foreign, and yet so familiar. 

There was even, tucked away in a corner where guests probably wouldn't notice it, lying on it's side, a scarlet letter of a book, a copy of Mein Kampf.

Know thy enemy, I took from that book's existence in my house.

Also, the knowledge that my parents would never censor my reading. Ever. 

Those books became the cornerstone of my reading, and also writing, life (although I'll admit I never touched Mein Kampf). I write a mix of sci-fi and horror with classic themes (growing up, falling in love), and a little bit of the holocaust thrown in there. I'm interested in how good people can be, but also how bad. The depths to which they will stoop, when circumstances allow/permit. The damage they can do.

Thinking of that bookshelf made me happy, sad and curious all at the same time. I wonder, reader-friends, what are the books that shaped your life?

And do you think a well-stocked Kindle or Nook can ever be a replacement for that wonderful paperback bookshelf? I don't. I love that paperback smell.


Ilene (@ilenegold) said...

A beautiful post, Leah.

I, too, fell in love with A Wrinkle in Time. I desperately wanted to be part of the Wallace family. They were just so cool.

My parents had a book room with two walls of rickety bookcases packed sometimes two-deep with books. Even now, decades later, I still find new things to read there.

There is something about print books that e-readers can never replace. Not just the smell, but the spirit, the connection. How do you form an emotional connection with the screen of a battery-powered device? I will forever be a paperback reader.

Leah said...

Thanks Ilene! We have that kind of book room in our house now - I can't WAIT to see what type of books our three-year-old gravitates towards as she gets older. :)

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