What Books Do

March 15, 2012

I worry a bit when I see students who suddenly have no time for books as they move into the busy schedules of high school. I want to tell them “Keep reading!” I want to share with them how books build a rich internal life that they can’t get by jumping through other people’s hoops, no matter how many A’s they get or what fancy school accepts them. I want to tell them that some day they are going to need that non-cynical, full internal life to get them through. I want to explain to them What Books Do.

Simply put, books save and heal us. They help us create a complex and varied inner landscape in which we can try on new ideas, discover feelings we didn’t know we had, and build a place of sanctuary within ourselves.

When Nina Sankovich lost her eldest sister at the age of 48, she turned to books to console and support herself. To honor her sister, she read a book a day for one year and chronicled her experience in her wonderful memoir “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading.” The book is not only an amazing resource for readers, it is a testament to the healing power of books. Book lovers will adore her blog.

Sadly, I’m about to mark the third anniversary of the death of my nineteen year old son. He died of a seizure in his sleep. Losing a child is like no other grief, a loss whose pain shifts but never abates. Every day is a day with a huge hole in it. But books have helped and I’m so deeply grateful for their solace and even enlightenment.

Tundra swans in flight

One such healing experience came recently when I read Eowyn Ivey’s beautiful debut “The Snow Child.” Set in the raw beauty of the Alaskan frontier of the 192o’s, the book addresses friendship, marriage, parenthood, loss and survival. The book is gorgeously written, especially the depiction of a wild, untamed Alaska. Ivey knows the beauty of Alaska first hand as she was raised and resides there still.

When I read the following line, I felt the book change me on a deep, internal level, change my grief, change my deepest understanding:  ” … and when she turned to him, he saw in her eyes the sorrow and joy of a lifetime.” This powerful line found a dark, unopened place within me.  I could feel myself fill with the bright light of the Alaskan wilderness, the blinding shimmer of snow covered ravines and cliffs … and deep within, that part of me broke free, full of  the beauty and wisdom of a fairy tale well told. The book allowed me, encouraged me, to have the full experience of my own life, a life full of both joy and sorrow.

I was lucky enough to meet the author at a recent conference where I had the opportunity to thank her for her wonderful book and share how it played a part in my healing. Will her story have the same effect on you? Who knows. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ story. We bring our own story to the books that shape us. Each pairing is unique, reader and book, and holds its own transforming power.

That’s what books do. What books have changed your internal landscape?

 

 

 

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3 Responses to “What Books Do”

  1. Meg Says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss — and I can appreciate powerful lines in stories that change us fundamentally, change the way we feel about life and the world.

    Though it’s in no way comparable, my own internal landscape was changed after breaking up with my first love — and I turned to one book to get me through that time, a time when my heart was jagged and full of splinters. I read Peter McWilliams’ How To Survive The Loss Of A Love daily for months, and it’s really about all sorts of losses . . . real ones, through death, but also the loss of dreams we had, the loss of a love we shared and hope we once felt. Eight years later, many of those lines are still with me.

  2. Jill Simpson Says:

    What a beautiful post. I don’t know how you manage to do it, Francine, but thank you for continuing to share your love of reading and life with all of us readers, young and old, despite such a profound and life-altering loss. I am glad to hear that there have been books that somehow help, even on those darkest of days. One such book for me recently was “The Fault Is in Our Stars,” which, with its candor and dark but wonderful sense of humor, really told it like it is. I loved it. I look forward to reading The Snow Child on your recommendation.

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