“It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I’ve heard people speak of finding themselves in pain, bankrupt in spirit and in body, but I’ve never understood what they meant.”
“When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure it out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy.”
“Royal beating. That was Flo’s promise. You are going to get one Royal Beating.”
There is something exquisite about the first page, the opening line of new book. Sometimes they require a second reading, slow and savoring. The first lines above are by, respectively, Carol Shields in Unless; Kaye Gibbons in Ellen Foster; and Alice Munro in Who Do You Think You Are? Often times, last lines are just as good, but I don’t want to spoil any (for the record, the last line in Ellen Foster is one of my all time favorites).
Far beyond the great delight of books being pleasurable or entertaining, they can be instructive. They can be reassuring escapes and affirming guides. And at some stages, they can save us. This is not an exaggeration or embellishment. Books have saved many of my clients.
Not surprisingly, many of the courageous people who come to The Nook were raised in families that lacked nurturing and guidance. Families rife with unaddressed mental illness and addiction. For many kids and teens growing up in these homes, a teacher, coach, or a friend’s parent provided kindness and encouragement. Other resourceful kids discover this escape and comfort through books. In response to my question, “What saved you? What kept you going?” these clients pause, reflect, and firmly state “Books. It was books.” For some, it was a specific book read and reread like a life preserver. Others can’t remember a single title or author, they just remember devouring books as though their life depended on it.
I’m not talking about self-help books, I mean novels. Made Up Stories that are so beautifully crafted they read like memoirs or biographies. Gifted authors are able to conjure heartbreak and heroism, relief and anguish in ways that are lush and evocative. Their descriptions of terror and flickers of hope leave us feeling understood and comforted that someone understands. Someone, even a fictional character, has gone down this road before us.
Novels can be a respite, a way to recharge when you’re sick of feeling lost or overwhelmed. Books can be a healthy escape from real life. Turn off the worry and tune into someone else’s life, someone else’s story. I have a brilliant, brainy friend in Dublin who was facing a third bout of cancer. She lost herself for brief periods in a book about Ernest Shackleton’s adventures to the Antarctic. She read about being trapped on the ice with colleagues and comrades, freezing temperatures, wet and cold, with a biscuit between them. It took her away from the chemotherapy, radiation, and surgeries. Away from the beeps and buzzes of hospital life to a land far far away with adventurers who were as courageous, resourceful, and resilient as she is.
Self help books; pregnancy and parenting manuals, and relationship guides can leave us feeling confused and inadequate. Each purports to have The Answers and The Right Way to tackle your struggles. But for now, I recommend that you put them back on the shelf and choose some fiction. Give yourself time to wander in a bookstore or browse in your local library. Don’t rush. Admire the covers and the spines. Enjoy the feel of the paper and its weight in your hands. Select stories that will enthrall and delight, or challenge and stimulate you. Let yourself got lost in books, the discoveries will be well worth it.