Death is what instructs most of all, and then only when it is present. When it is absent it is totally forgotten. Those who can live with death can live in the truth, only this is almost unendurable. It is not the drama of death that teaches us – when you are facing it there is no drama.
p. 348 Iris Murdock, Henry and Cato (St. Albans: Triad Panther 1977)
I have been thinking a lot about books lately. My personal life has been overwhelming: I lost a cherished aunt who was my last relative from my childhood; my son was rushed to hospital and even the family pet of the last decade passed away. Combine that with more mundane stresses of long work hours and travel and I was shaken off my center.
Historically, I have lost myself in a book when I need to escape, to catch my breath before going back to the fray. As a child my home life was turbulent and often unstable. Books sustained me and the library was my refuge. I never went in for the Nancy Drew novels of my girl friends. Oddly enough, I liked to read encyclopedia and factual based writing. Once I started writing my own fact-based work I started reading fictional work in earnest.
I missed most of my sixth year of grade school due to illness and a teacher's strike but it was the best year of my education. That year I decided to read the reference library – or at least a whole shelf of it. I started at Aeschylus, The Birds, from the Greek tragedies and read my way clear through to Zola. I can still remember that B was for Baudelaire and C was for Chaucer, D for Darwin and Descartes and so on. Did I understand it all? Of course not. Nor could I even pronounce some of it. I remember being fascinated by the word hyperbole as in Shakespeare saying "he o'er shot the mark, 'tis hyperbole". I thought it was pronounced as hyper-bowl, as if it were some new sport.
Usually, I am whimsical in what I choose to read - if it is not research. I leave myself open to chance. I buy books at church and charity sales or thrift shops and use open shelf distribution networks. I like the idea of finding a book and leaving a book in exchange as in a literary version of karma. On my last trip to England I found a lovely Margaret Atwood volume in a medieval church's book sale. It was leather bound and had a ribbon marker. I paid a song for it; took great delight in its sensual offerings and felt patriotic when I left it behind in my flat for the next resident. I knew Margaret would have approved. (When I met her as a student she was the most piss and vinegar person; I suspect she has since mellowed with age.)
I started this post with a quote from a book that I found in a free book spot outside a local café. Little did I know that a scant month after finishing that book I would be dealing with death one more time. Odd, isn't it? How when I tried to lose myself I instead found what I needed.