Shared Books and Belonging

Ever since I was a kid, whenever I read a book and love it, just really love it, I have a hard time comprehending that anyone else has ever read it too. There has always been something about a good story, especially when I was young and starry-eyed and consuming two or three books at a time on long summer days, that made me believe the magic of it could only be for me. It belonged to me and I belonged to it—we existed together, eternally solitary and melancholically happy. In some ways, the last twenty years of my life have simply been the journey of unlearning that, of coming to understand that, just maybe, other people might know and love the things that I know and love. Perhaps they even knew and loved them first.

This revelation that it is possible for others to read what I have read and experience it in a similar way has been a surprising discovery, but overall a happy one. It has, in fact, given rise to one of my more dangerous habits: book-lending. I habitually lend out books and, for obvious reasons, they’re usually my favorite ones. A bit perilous, but, as my dad always used to say, “Ships in a harbor are safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” True, he didn’t usually use the metaphor to refer to mold-speckled paperbacks, but I digress…

I’ve lent out more books than usual in the past few months. I only have a portion of my library here in Vancouver, but still I’ve found myself handing out much-loved volumes, first to housemates, but more recently to other friends as well. It’s been everything from The Thief Lord to True Grit, either of which has the power to make you fall back in love with fiction.

And I myself have been re-reading books fit for sharing. Gradually, beginning back in the Spring, it was the Narnia books. Many people I know are familiar with them and have read them multiple times themselves, so there is a peculiar joy in being able to casually mention to a friend that Uncle Andrew is just the worst, and have them know precisely what I mean, even though strictly speaking Uncle Andrew has never existed. This sharing of the story increases its joy and somehow even its truth.

In the last couple weeks, I’ve also been re-reading the Mennyms books. I suspect you haven’t heard of them (though if you have please get in touch immediately). They are a quiet English children’s series about a very unusual family simply doing their best to live a normal life but finding the task difficult. I think of these books often, I talk about them often, I aspire to have something of their essence in my own fiction, but I hadn’t re-read them since college, and they’re even more extraordinary than I remember. 

They are stories about loneliness and otherness but also about what it means to be human and the devastating adventure of mere existence. They can be a little bleak and existential for children’s books, I realize now, but children themselves can be a little bleak and existential. And the books do ultimately contain plenty of hope, and not of the flimsy kind. Really, they are stories of unobtrusive, everyday perseverance in the face of unalterable limitations, of tough perennial joy in the midst of permanent uncertainty. They are strange books, and precious ones.

As I reread the series with all the venerable wisdom of my twenty-eight years, I realized that, unusually for me, I couldn’t remember the first time I encountered it. I couldn’t remember what chair I curled up in, what my pet worries and fears were at the time, even how old I was—somewhere between nine and twelve most likely. But I am now sure that from the first, even if I didn’t realize it, the Mennyms spoke to something which lived deep in me, which still lives in me, and I think always will: a keen, noiseless, unquenchable desire for belonging. And through a set of stories in which, ridiculously, a blue rag doll is the most moving character, I began to understand, am still years later beginning to understand, that an identically wrenching desire for kinship exists in the heart of every person I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Perhaps this is why I can read a book and you can read the same book, and together we can love it. Together, we can belong to it.

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