For the first guest post in the history of My Beautiful Bookshelf, fellow blogger Elspeth Olson will be contributing her especial book wisdom to my humble book blog. Elspeth is one of my brilliant colleagues from graduate school, a librarian extraordinaire currently getting her second Master’s (!) in Vancouver. Check out her blog at http://bluecastledreams.wordpress.com/.
When I was a child my best friends could be found on the library shelves.*
Perhaps this concept is a cliche now. As geek and nerd cultures become mainstream, the stories of lonely children who lived in their heads have also increased, but in my opinion the proliferation makes the stories no less powerful. It is, after all, the foundation to every great hero story since warrior epics fell by the wayside and Everyman heroes took the places previously held by Beowulfs, Gilgameshes, and Siegfrieds. Those of us who read and imagined ourselves into adventures are the mild-mannered alter egos of the heroes and heroines who starred in our mental epics.
In high school, I read Michael Ende’s wonderful fantasy novel The Neverending Story (translated from German: Die unendliche Geschichte). “Read” is probably a polite way of describing how I devoured the story – it felt more like swallowing great lumps of it, each time I sat down to read. Though I loved the story, enjoyed characters like Atreyu and Falkor, and was amused by the way each chapter starts with the subsequent letter of the alphabet, it was Bastian who caught my attention. Ende managed to capture the way a book can pull one wholly inside its pages, how it dominates the mind entirely and leaves one unaware of even the biologically necessary processes like breathing. In Ende’s world, Bastian is physically pulled into the book, much as Harry Potter seems to physically fall into Dumbledore’s Pensieve. Obviously, in our mundane world, this doesn’t happen. But it can feel like it does.
There’s a sense of complete shock that occurs when one encounters a passage in a book that perfectly verbalizes something in one’s own psyche or experience. I felt it when I read The Neverending Story because in elementary school and middle school and high school I turned to fantasy literature for the escape, much as Bastian does. I recognized in Bastian what L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley calls a “kindred spirit,” this lonely, somewhat odd child who loses himself in a book.
The shock of recognition happens in two ways – characters and descriptions. While character kindred spirits are fascinating, it is the surprise of recognizing a familiar feeling or experience in the pages of a book that is most interesting to me.
Robin McKinley is one of my favorite authors. Her fantasy novels are populated with incredibly believable personalities, and have an unexpected streak of humor. Of all her novels – though her retellings of Beauty and the Beast (Beauty and Rose Daughter) are wonderful and Aerin in The Hero and the Crown is the ultimate example of the “sheroes” genre – of all her novels and her strong female characters, my favorite has to be Harry (Angharad) Crewe in The Blue Sword.
The Blue Sword tells the story of Harry Crewe, who moves to the Homelander colonial village of Istan in the desert province of Daria after her father dies. It’s not hard to read this as a fictionalized version of a 19th-century British colonial town in someplace like Africa or the Middle East. Harry has always felt like she doesn’t quite fit in her role in life, and moving to Istan – well, she’s surrounded by other Homeland colonists and soldiers, all of whom complain about the sand and the wind and the heat. Harry, on the other hand, feels drawn to the sand and the wind and the heat and the distant mountains, as if she is finally home. When she is unexpectedly abducted by the king of the Free Hillfolk, the name given to the final remants of the old Damarian kingdom, Harry is forced to confront something within herself that allows her to finally fit within her own skin and find the right place for herself in her suddenly expanded world.
Aside from the fantastic story (to which I have done no justice in the above description), Harry and her story appeal to me for two primary passages found in the book. Robin McKinley describes the experiences of insomnia and anger in a way that finally verbalizes how I know them. Early on in the book, Harry finds she can’t sleep. Every night, she goes to bed like a proper Homeland maiden, and every night she lies awake, or sits in her window-seat and watches the night pass. I, too, go through phases when I somehow don’t sleep. It’s not that I’m not tired – I am. If I try to get up and do something like read or work, I can’t focus. But I just don’t sleep. McKinley describes the aftermath of what I call a white night as not feeling much the worse for wear, other than a “moral irritability” from knowing one OUGHT to have been asleep all those hours. This is so it. Sure, I don’t feel all that rested after one of the bad nights, but mostly I’m just grumpy about having wanted to be asleep. I enjoy sleeping. When I miss out on that enjoyment, I feel annoyed by the loss.
As for Harry’s anger – there’s a moment in the book when Harry realizes that she possesses some gift – psychological, intellectual, magical… it could be argued any way – that is linked to strong emotion. And she realizes that she has unconsciously trained herself to calm, because leaving the way open to other passions means never fully closing the gates to anger. Harry looks back into her early childhood and remembers tantrums, expressions of rage that frightened her nurses and frightened herself. To control them, she taught herself a “nonmuscular control.” When I first read that passage, I felt like something inside my head froze, and all I could do was stare at the paragraph in shocked recognition. Like Harry, I feel I have trained myself to a controlled sort of calm. It’s a daily fight, for keeping my temper has never been easy, but I know I have to try.
People read for many reasons. There’s the escapism, sure, but I think the most powerful reason is to find those moments when an author perfectly describes a person, experience, or place that one thinks is unique to oneself. For the time it takes to read the passage, there is a strong sense of connection to both author and characters. And the knowledge that the passage is there makes the reader feel a little less lonely.
*Seriously. When other kids had imaginary friends they made up, or anthropomorphized their toys, I pretended I was playing with the children from the Pippi Longstocking stories, Annika and Tommy. I have no idea why.