Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Literary Prescription

In my first year of university I stood in the bookstore stunned, two hefty Norton Anthologies cradled in my arms. I remember checking the prices over and over and then with a shrug, chucking them into my basket. They were expensive, but I was glad I needed them. Along with the 15 or so other books I had piled in my basket, these were to be the jewels of my shelves. I hadn't expected to sacrifice such a significant chunk of my summer earnings for books listed on a syllabus, but I wasn't going to scour the library like some of my cash-strapped (and much wiser) classmates. I was short on cash too, but I was going to own these books. I was going to write my name inside the front covers, date them, love them, kiss them, and have them forever.

It was such a rush sliding piles of books out of those thick plastic (pulverized another rain forest) university bookstore bags at the end of the day. I still get tingles just thinking about running my hands over slick covers and fre
sh spines. I spent many a half-hour admiring my bookshelves-- so many new books, so many unread pages! Uncracked spines! Mine mine mine, all mine. It was a truly exhilarating high--I could do anything, be anything, dream everything. I was hopped up on book-potential.

My 19th Century British Lit Professor stood at the front of the classroom the following week and justified our spending:

"These are books you need to have. When people look at your shelves, they're looking at who you are."

Sure, it seems a wee b
it elitist. Norton Anthologies say cultured, refined, bookishly attractive. The Arden Shakespeare is for the uppity scholar, well researched, well respected, (half of every page is dedicated to footnotes and if those footnotes are highlighted and fringed with marginalia, then I'm serious about my Shakespeare). But beyond the desire to appear scholarly and well-read, the idea of bookshelves as mirrors of ourselves--our psyches, our tastes, who we are--is thrilling.

If we're being more kind than judgmental then Whitman says I'm a transcendental mystic-in-training while Hardy says I'm horribly depressed. If Dickens gestures to my future as a union rep, then Austen exposes me as a dry wit tempered by the airy dreams of a blushing romantic. Sophie Kinsella announces that I'm not a book snob and will be indulgent at will, while current subscriptions to literary magazines say I'm with it, I'm part of the contemporary scene, I know what's up and coming, hip and boundary-breaking.

Of course, that's what I'd hope for, isn't it? But really, the idea that my b
ookshelf is a mirror reflecting who I am, depends not on what others see when they look at my shelves (or even what I see), but on what happens when at a very particular moment in my life I pick a book off my shelf and read it. Like some sort of book-driven destiny, the books we read tentacle into our lives and probe at the bits that really matter. Without knowing it, we're participating in some sort of bibliotherapy where what we read helps us deal with our own problems. We might think and re-think where we are and what we're doing or we might be inspired to do what we're afraid to do. Or maybe the desire to change isn't ignited; maybe what we read beats us down into a melancholic stupor and we fester for awhile.

But the point is, something does happen. Maybe there aren't
fireworks or sweeping orchestral soundtracks to help us along, but in reading, we're living. We're doing. And ultimately, the books we read help us make sense of our lives.

Two to three times a week, I'll pop a pill in book form--a small dose of some pithy literary tidbit I've come across in the regular hum-drum hoopla of life. But once a week, I'll go for one of those incredibly invasive physical exams. Well, it's the spirit of the thing. An extended entry that reads like one of those dreaded doctor visits that leaves you
feeling exposed and vulnerable--there you are up on the exam table in a paper dress, staring warily at the stirrups. You can't lie about your weight, because those stupefying digits stare back at you in defiance--there! There's that fourth cupcake you ate last night. It's the truth and now you have to deal. And we are going to deal. Well, we'll try.

"...A book is a literary prescription put up for the benefit of someone who needs it." S.M. Crothers.

I'm standing barefoot in front of my shelves ready for a remedy. Join me!

Images: Though the original creators of these images could not be found, they were sourced from the following sites (in respective order): Gathering Books,
Chicago Free, and The Group.

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