Book S(h)elves

(“The Emperors Children”; Personal Reflections by Debby)

“What is it about books? Perfectly rational people get crazy about their books. Who has time for that?”

“I measure my life out in books.”

“You should be measuring your life by living. Correction: you shouldn’t be measuring your life. What’s the point?” (p. 382)

This exchange occurs during the conversation between Danielle and Julius’ long-term lover, David, as they spend an uncomfortably long time in the car on the way to the train station. David, unafraid of popping the illusory bubble, makes it clear that he disapproves of Danielle’s way of life; of how she is “torn between Big Ideas and a party.” (p. 453) In this instance, she claims to measure her life by books—presenting a scholarly, wizened face to the world. Yet, she admits, that she doesn’t “have the first idea what they might be about” (p. 382). David chides her for holding on to such pretentions. The books could be blank, for as much as they mean on her shelf. If she is defining her life by those pieces of literature, she amounts to as much as the paper that they are written on.

How many times have I heard someone say, “Oh yeah, I read that book in high school. I think it was pretty good…” How often do we hold on to relics that meant something to us in the past, but have lost that relevance with the passage of time? Why do we let books assemble on our shelves and not at least wonder why we put them there in the first place? We can spend hours watching reruns of Friends or collections of sports highlights, but revisiting a book that meant something to us at one time seems almost odd in comparison.

The trouble is, if you don’t recognize or remember, if you don’t fully partake of the truths that are displayed on the pages of a book, then reading itself is completely worthless.

Recently, I took a long road trip with my boyfriend to Texas. Along the endless stretch of Highway 10, we lost cell reception, the radio turned to static, and his ipod cord malfunctioned. Completely isolated from technology, we turned to books. I had recently loaned my boyfriend a copy of one of my favorites, “Into the Wild”. I flipped to his bookmark and offered to read aloud. For several hours, I a new kind of life into Jon Krakauer’s words: the story of the young and reckless Chris McCandless. It had been a couple years since I had last read the book and I was struck by how it had changed since my last go-through. Or, rather, how I had changed. I vaguely remembered finding the endless descriptions of nature tedious. This time, though, the creative language he used to describe McCandless’ challenging path mesmerized me. I found myself caught up in the narrative of the earth that Krakauer shaped with his words. As our car rolled across open planes and past the long plateaus in the distance, I was hit by the magnitude of nature, and the profundity it had on both McCandless and Krakauer. Living on the outskirts of a big city, I tell friends and family that I love having a view of the mountains, as reassurance of the “natural world”. But I never actually take the time to hike or climb, to experience the true beauty of it. These two men lived for it. They really knew what it meant to travel “Into the Wild”.

In the same way, I think Danielle holds on to these books as a show of what she knows, what she values. Yet her absolute neglect and unapologetic ignorance of their contents shows that she really doesn’t know their significance them at all.

Of course, going back to the original quote, I don’t think that David was merely implying that Danielle doesn’t read enough. This all ties back to the “artificial character” theme; everyone has a distinct appearance that they hold up to the world, but lack any substance. David first dismisses the notion of measuring life by the shells of books, and then takes it another step further. When David says “… you shouldn’t be measuring your life. What’s the point?” he is essentially saying that by constantly checking how your life measures up against the expectations that you (or others) have set, you will never be satisfied. It is truly a pointless endeavor to calculate your value by any standard or circumstance. Refreshingly true, but the truth seems to only glance off Danielle’s thick skin.

However, as the reader (the third-party in the midst of this discussion), I pounced on this passage. I underlined, starred, and copied the quote into my journal. I want to have it in reach, whenever the meaning of this book starts to slip from my grasp. I want a bookshelf full of wonder and memories and endless truth. Then, when I sink so low as to measure my life, at least my books will be worth something. And I will be worth more than paper.

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