The 144th day of 2011
“We read to know we are not alone.”
Books make me happy. They comfort me as well as inform and entertain. I think of them as companions, best friends. Some are old friends and show the wear of travels through my life — a journey that’s had a number of starts and stops along the way.
And there are my newest friends still in freshly pressed outfits (others call them dust jackets). Here’s a picture of one who came also wrapped as a gift. I enjoy seeing Marilyn Monroe posed in front of a shelf of her own books, rather than the familiar photographic images.
When I discovered C.S. Lewis initially it was not the children’s books that captured me. I read his books of theology as well as A Grief Observed, which he wrote after the traumatic death of his wife, Joy. Most of the world learned about his marriage from the play Shadowlands and the movie that came after that. However, it’s in the published words of mourning where one finds a profoundly different way to think about and imagine intimacy and love. In that book a reader feels palpably the private struggle and spiritual crisis he endured after he lost her. C.S. Lewis was alone until he was 58 years old — in that he was an unmarried man. But he was not alone before he met his wife. He had a full life. He was accompanied by his far-reaching creative brilliance, a deep faith in God, his writing, students, brother, friends and the books he loved to read.
It’s the comment about reading that brings me closest to C.S. Lewis. I’ve always surrounded myself with books and have read since a young child. Even when in the company of others, I’ve been alone. Chronic illness does that, whether you’re lucky enough to find one person or friends to stay with you or not. In my situation, there’s the actual lack of companionship, but I have many dear friends with me 24/7. There are bound volumes on my shelves, and virtual books I’ve downloaded onto the Kindle. Those are portable friends always available to come along to the hospital.
These last several weeks in Manhattan have been unkind ones for those of us with respiratory troubles. I’ve been isolated more than is wise psychologically. But my books and the ability to read them have gotten me through this rough patch. These old and new friends have kept me from falling into a ditch of hopelessness.
In the room where the Stone Sage Lion guards the door, there are two pieces of art representing books. There’s a trompe-l-oeil painting by an artist I met in California. She took a photograph of a bookshelf in the study. The painting is that shelf’s reality, as it existed at that precise moment in time. However, she added two fantasy confections – on one sits my cat, Jennyanydots. This was a thoughtful gesture as my fur-person friend had recently died (at over 20 years of age). In front of the cat is another invention — a book entitled How To Train Your Dog. That bookshelf and most of the people in my life at that time have left my world, along with the beloved feline. But the books are still around. On another wall of the terrace room is a miniature library created within a desk drawer. I purchased it in Venice at a shop owned and run by a family. Sadly, I’ve heard they’re no longer in business. The shop’s enchanting name: Zacaria’s …i libri non libri di. It was in the Campo San Provolo – San Zaccaria in Castello. If you’re in that neighborhood, do check and let me know if they’re still there. Both the Stone Sage Lion and I are eager to find out and hope the news of their closing was only rumor.
What is it about my enduring relationship to books? I don’t think my attraction and attachment to them is only because I’m a writer, although I think becoming a writer originated with being an enthusiastic reader. When younger people ask: “How can I become a writer?” I answer with one short sentence: “First you must develop a healthy reading appetite.” It doesn’t always make me popular with people who want a shortcut or a magic formula. Those don’t exist. Writing is a skill one must work at conscientiously and constantly in order to sharpen the brain’s language tools. You must be willing to fail utterly and start over again … and again. The true magic is often in finding at the end of a day you’ve written one good sentence! Colette understood that and wrote about it eloquently. It is hard work. I’m not a celebrity nor am I a celebrity author. I don’t find anything all that glamorous about being a writer, but I respect the craft of it. I’m grateful to be able to do it — at times successfully — at other junctures quite dismally.
I do celebrate what reading does for my spirit, and how it has shaped me as a woman writer. I’m surprised and sometimes stunned to learn my own books have lives of their own after publication. Books. Reading. Writing – these are things that sustain me.
That’s it for this week from the Stone Sage Lion and me. And from our loyal friends – the books on the shelves, and those piled on the tables, scattered on the sofa, and the chairs. And the ones resting all over my raft-bed.
Am I so alone?
“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story.”
Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)
©2011 Alida Brill From This Terrace