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?





I am an advocate for book culture. I want to create a world where books are desired and cherished and fill countless shelves in countless homes. I want to overhear people discussing books; I want to read books and then read books about books. I want everyone to experience that great comfort when finding a beautiful book and turning that first page. I want everyone to feel their pulse race when they read an astonishing first line. I want to see movies based on books, watch book trailers, enjoy the physical beauty of books themselves. I am a book nerd and I realize not everyone shares my book-centric fantasy. Still, I think the world would be a better place if we were to work at cultivating more book culture.

Here, in no particular order, are a dozen suggestions for creating book culture in our homes, book culture for our families and book culture in our lives and communities. I hope you’ll post some additional ideas.

1. Make a date with a book. There are so many competing events and forces that can come between ourselves and a good book. Having “no time to read” means only that we’ve “made” or “chosen” no time to read. If we make a book date, plan on meeting up with a desired book in that special comfy chair over a glass of wine or afternoon cup of tea, we can reignite our passion for books. Sometimes it’s a Sunday morning, staying in bed for several chapters with a warm mug of coffee on the nightstand.

2. Keep a book handy. In your purse, the glove compartment of your car, the baby’s diaper bag. You never know when there will be a free moment, a line to wait on, a napping baby and you will be prepared and happy.

3. Talk about books. Next time there’s a lull in a conversation, ask expectantly ‘so are you reading anything wonderful lately?’ If your friends look at you oddly, perhaps it’s time to find some book loving friends.

4. Join a book group, start a book group, recruit a book buddy (book group of two). Create themed book groups for different genres and purposes.

5. Never force a child to read or listen to a story. Same goes for bribes and threats. Encourage, share and model.

6. Read aloud. To a child, a lover, someone ill, yourself. Enjoy both the sounds of the words as well as the way they feel in your mouth as you say them. Especially poetry.

7. Visit libraries, many and often. Talk with the librarians, they are filled with amazing knowledge about books.

8. Keep a library basket in your home filled with the current books you’ve borrowed.

9. Give every newborn a large bookshelf (preferably well stocked). You’ll want board books, classics, award winners and the ones you grew up with or raised your own children with. Include books with the baby’s name (Olivia, Madeline, No David).

10. Give books as gifts. If you don’t know a person’s interests, give a gift card to their local independent book shop. Get the name, number and website of their local shop at Indiebound.org.

11. Support authors. Live and dead ones. Attend book signings of the live ones. Visit and support historic sites – Emily  Dickinson’s home in Amherst … the beautiful Faulkner House in New Orleans.

12. Be an equal opportunity reader, that is, give yourself (and your child) permission to read what suits your fancy, be it serious, light, silly or profound – give it all a try, trust your curiosity and whims.

You can find this lovely book-related art at http://etsy.me/wj1SoE

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