crack the books
any minute now, i’m hoping, the red truck might pull up to the curb — or what was the curb back before the mountains of charcoal-gray polar crust accumulated there, and eclipsed the sharp edge where front yard meets street.
if all goes as planned, there will be a larger-than-life rectangle poking out from under the blankets that billow, blankets intended to keep the rectangle’s smooth white planks from getting splattered with road salt as the red truck sped down the tollway from the pig barn just this side of the state line. the pig barn is where the planks and the nails and the smooth white baseboard and trim turned into a bookcase, all at the hands of my old friend jim. jim who wields hammer and jigsaw and who for the past 15 years has been building our dreams, one nook and one cranny at a time.
that is all to say that i’m at long last due to get that bookcase today. one i ordered up months and months ago ( i might not splurge on haircuts or pairs of jeans without holes in the knees, but i will fork up the cash to buy me a wall of pressed-tight spines). it’s a bookcase that’s soon to be home to the five unpacked book boxes hauled home from veritas U., and the dozen or so tumbling towers of tomes i plonked on my office floor in those long-ago weeks (two years and counting) when i left my downtown newspaper office and made this old garage my forever writing room.
there’s hope that i’ll be home alone for a good chunk of this weekend, and my fingers are itching to get at those books, to pull each one from the depths and the dark of its shipping box. to flip through the pages and sink back in time, back to the couch in cambridge where i looked over rooftops and scrawled in the margins. made notes. thought with my pen, in ink. where, for one sumptuous year, i tumbled and soared over the landscape of learning — learning of poetry and slave-trading, jim-crow atrocities, abolitionists and everyday saints, as well as the art and craft of narrative writing.
all those books — all those old friends: the poet donald hall; frederick douglas; virginia woolf; zora neale hurston; the list goes on and on — are tucked inside, and pulling them, one-by-one, from the shadow, hoisting them up to a shelf, will be an exercise in remembering, in discovering all over again just why as a civilization we believe in the sealing of words to the page.
it’s testament, all of it, to the power of being shaken to tears, the delight of traipsing upon a brand-new accumulation of letters whirred into a word we’d never imagined, the riveting thought that stirred me to pulling the tip of my pen clear beneath the words, as if to memorize, to absorb, to never forget the electrical force of that particular idea.
i boxed the books by semester, so with each tearing back of the seam, i’ll enter a particular epoch in the year that unlocked channels in my mind and deepened my heart and my soul. you can’t open a book, can’t draw your eyes across line after line and not emerge with new layers of knowing, of wondering, of hungering. not if the book’s worth the ink soaked into the page.
and that’s why it matters that those books emerge from their boxes and their vertical teetering stacks. a book belongs at arm’s reach. a book begs to be pulled from the shelf, to be shared, to be slipped in the hand of someone who might want to know, to discover. or to be sprawled once again across your very own lap, so you can read and repeat and recite. memorize a particular collection of words, and the wisdom for which it’s the key.
they’re overdue, all those tomes, to rise from the floor and climb up the walls. soon as the red truck rolls along, they’ll get on with their reason for being: to offer, over and over, the very words that lead us into the heart of truth, beauty and wisdom.
best done when perched on a shelf, ready for dispatch with determined tug of the spine.
some days writing is sheer exercise. you rumble your fingers in hopes of keeping them limber, and the brain cells to which they’re connected. this was one of those days — with 85 distractions, here, there and everywhere.
because i can’t bear to leave you with such thin offerings, i am turning to one of the books from another shelf in this old house: abraham joshua heschel’s “i asked for wonder: a spiritual anthology.” the editor, samuel h. dresner, culled heschel’s writings for those passages — “so compelling are his sentences that a paragraph literally chokes from wealth,” dresner writes — that are the heart of the matter.
here’s one titled, “degrees”:
…Awareness of God does not come by degrees from timidity to intellectual temerity; it is not a decision reached at the crossroads of doubt. It comes when, drifting in the wilderness, having gone astray, we suddenly behold the immutable polar star. Out of endless anxiety, out of denial and despair, the soul bursts out in speechless crying.
and so i leave you with heschel, and keep my own eye trained out the window. searching and hoping for a sighting of the shiny red truck and the rectangle certain to put my life back in order. or at least some fraction of it, perhaps.
what books do you pull most often from your best-loved shelf?