There were always books in the house. My father, a mechanic and coal miner, loved history and science. Mom read historical novels and mysteries. Somewhere around fifth grade, I got into the James Bond series. We didn’t own any of these books; Mom and I visited the local library in Rogersville, Tennessee (population 4,802) once a week to switch them out for another batch.
The H.B. Stamps Memorial Library was no bigger than a two bedroom apartment. Small, but for me, it was the world. Sometimes I believe—or perhaps want to believe—that the Stamps Library was my first church, not St. Henry’s Catholic, just a few blocks down.
Whenever I think of that library, a warm salve gets poured over this brain, one that’s sloshed-up with old dysfunctions. The memory floods the Now: My mother and I walk through the door and, just like that, whatever was troubling me outside subsides, like a raging ocean that crashes, impotently, against the fortress of books.
I’m in sixth grade. my mother, exhausted from her secretarial job at the local vocational school, hands me the paper bag. I take it to Mrs. Leahy, the librarian, who smiles at me; Mrs. Leahy, who always smiles at the kids who frequent the library, the ones who have, at such an early age, fallen in love with words. I place the pile on her desk and head to the back room where she keeps Ian Fleming. But I’ve read most of the Bonds. Even at that age, I recognize they’re a little repetitive, so I meander into other rooms and discover In Cold Blood, my first true-crime book, which scares the shit out of me, so I grab it to take home.
It’s quiet, so quiet. Calm. Stable. There’s no threat of a sudden earthquake of emotions, some of them newborns, others one hundred years old. No one’s throwing back a bottle of Jack or Flor de Caña in here, no one’s screaming a rage fit for a psyche ward. There are no relatives who prey on their own. No murderers; no massacre. There is no poverty in here; the library is my first impression of American Democracy, where the rich and the unemployed gather, ignore one another, and peruse. I’m twelve. I get lost in the shelves and want to stay lost. But the library closes at five, so we take its pulse beats of books home, where the calm and rumination in the public shelves infects the century-old din of suffering that hangs in the McPeek-Villatoro air.
Books can save your life. Put it on a car bumper sticker, post it on Facebook, and it immediately sounds trite. Perhaps I should say, The art of reading can save your life. Because real reading—that is, the kind that a good piece of literature demands before it gives up its gems to you—is a discipline. It takes time, concentration; and it has to take up ample space in your life.
And oh the gems a good novel or poem gives up! The novelist, for example: if she’s good, she takes us into the human experience through aesthetics and, in doing so, makes it safe for us to visit familiar horrors.
I read a good book—Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, or Robert Lowell’s poetry collection Life Studies—and when I finish, something’s happened to me. The book is a reminder of human pain, but. . .something’s changed. The author’s art of writing has joined with my discipline of reading. Jagged-Edged Life gets put under an aesthetic light, where the visceral and the cerebral meet in the long hours of me getting lost in the story.
The book doesn’t erase the past and all its troubles, but rather, offers a profound observation of life—one so profound that, if the book’s really good, you don’t even realize you’re thinking so very, very deeply. That’s where the saving of one’s own life happens and, with it, the possibility of real happiness.