Philadelphia Metropolis

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Life Between the Covers

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There is a placard in my local library which bears a quote by Jorge Luis Borges. It reads "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library". When I first strolled past these words on my way to Adult Non-Fiction, I had just moved to Philadelphia from the east coast of Australia and couldn't have felt more like a fish out of water. I'd made a decision to end my career as a lawyer and leave my family, my friends  and the hometown in which I'd grown up to relocate to a country where I knew no one; to a new job, a new city and to surrender my life as I knew it to my first and only true love - my writing.

 Nothing was familiar. I didn't know the area, I was learning (and I use the tem loosely) how to drive on the right side of the road, my accent was a dead giveaway that I didn't belong, I hadn't made any friends, I hadn't written a thing since landing at JFK, I was ready to maim the next person who made a Crocodile Dundee joke and  -- second only to the people I'd left behind -- I really, really missed my books.

Books.jpgMy books are to me what shoes are to some women. If pressed, I'd prefer to score a good vintage, first-edition Dickens to a pair of Manolo Blahniks. They were the last things I packed before getting on the plane, leaving strict instructions with my immediate family that they were to be kept safe. My books are the things I'd wrap myself in a wet blanket and run back into a burning building, snot-nosed, arms flailing, to rescue. I often have Cleopatra-esque visions of being buried with my favorites. Although I firmly believe in the adage that sharing is caring, particularly when it comes to sharing a good book with a good mate, I have ended friendships over a failure to return a borrowed book. My books are my babies. My best friends. They know me better than anyone.

I was 15 when I first read The Great Gatsby and at 15 I wept for Gatsby, Daisy and the whole sordid mess. It moved me in a way that is still difficult for me to articulate. David Sedaris' Barrel Fever was the first time I recall being driven to laugh out loud at the written word. Tully left me emotionally drained for about three days after I closed the back cover. The Hungry Little Caterpillar by Eric Carle was the first book I was ever given. I still have the copy which has my brother's message to me, his new baby sister, scrawled on the inside cover. Oh The Places You Will Go, by Seuss is the one book that travels with me everywhere I go. It is my own personal Holy Book.

When I was a kid, I was incredibly rigid about the manner in which I read. I would carefully deliberate over which book I was going to read, then proceed to read each page word for word, sentence for sentence, cover to cover. Even if I knew it wasn't really the best fit for me, I would persevere with dogged determination. These days, I am a lot less regimented. While in bookstores or during weekends in New York, scanning the tables of second hand editions on offer in West Village, I'll let my eyes scope out a cover that catches my eye, scan the blurb, open the pages to a random point and read a page or two to familiarize myself with the style and flow. I'll fan the pages near my face and inhale its scent before I fully commit to taking it home. I always have three or four books on my bedside table. I read snippets, pages, chapters, and put them down again. I start some and never finish. Occasionally, when time permits and the mood grabs me, I'll rip through a book in a weekend, unable to eat, sleep or return phone calls until I'm done. I'll re-read books I haven't read in years, settling down like one would with a pal they haven't seen graduation.

One of the things I have often lamented about our brief spell in this life is that I will never have enough time to read all the books I'd like to. I have a passionate love/hate relationship with The New York Times Book Review. Every Saturday I trot out to collect it from our front drive, and settle in with a decaf latte to pore over the latest offerings to the literary gods. I keep lists of the books I want to read next; little scraps of paper with titles and authors, most of whom I know in my heart I will never have the chance to pluck from the shelf and meet. Maybe it's one of the reasons I subscribe to the notion of reincarnation. If we really do come back for another round, I'm hoping I come back as someone who knows how to read, and someone who lives right round the corner from a good bookstore.

Some people define paradise as a mojito on a deserted beach in Mexico, a live-in housekeeper and a full-time chef or a world in which reality television had never been invented. Whatever your spiritual persuasion, I challenge you to find an avid reader who doesn't dig the idea of paradise (be that the afterlife or some elusive place you'd like to be right now, instead of where you are) as a type of library. If it exists, I'm hoping someday I find it.

 

Marnie Quinlan lives and reads in Bala Cynywd.

 

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