I was sitting on the edge of an easy chair in my home office looking at books piled here and there when it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn't be giving so many of them away. It was beginning to feel like I was nudging unwanted children out the door.
I could see them in the rains of autumn, shivering against the inclement weather, looking back at the shelves they had occupied for so many years; where they had brought so much pleasure to me and to others who sought the comfort and emotional distance that books provide.
I was cleaning out my cave, which is to say my office, a chore I assume occasionally when the room becomes too cluttered even for me, and the hundreds of books and travel souvenirs and, well, this and that seem to be closing in on me. The electronic Nook and the Kindle were taking the place of books, I told myself, and I had to keep up with the new and hip digital age.
But as I was pretty much into the job of creating different piles of books to give away, to keep and to decide on, I took a break to see what was going on in Facebook. So doing, I came across the photograph of a man on oxygen reading a volume of Mark Twain stories.
He was sitting in what appeared to be his home library, perhaps recovering from surgery, seeking emotional comfort, transported from his own painful presence into the barefoot world of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn along a trail laid out by the master story teller who created them.
I could understand that. During recovery from heart surgery and other critical operations, books were my attendants, easing me back into a reclining chair and being by my side for the moments it took for me to drift away from self-pity into landscapes of imagination. John Steinbeck was my main guide. I can't tell you how many times I read from "Grapes of Wrath," not sunny prose but the eloquent syntax of history seen through eyes of compassion, diverting me from the self-obsessions of my lesser griefs. The Joads suffered for a lifetime, I for a few days.
I lived in the magical words of Ray Bradbury too, picturing him at the center of his own clutter during visits to his home, calling him my friend, and mourning his passage from Earth to God's gleaming stars and to the eternal spaces of his own creation. Alex Haley was a friend and collaborator too, and I have read from "Roots" when my own distress needed comparisons to the hard worlds of others.
Poetry, memoirs, biographies, novels, non-fiction accounts—they all lay in piles around me. Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Alice Munro, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Sylvia Plath, Dorothy Parker... literary royalty intersecting to lift up their readers, to make us well.
I sat there for a long time, paralyzed by my own indecision, then I picked up "Grapes of Wrath" and read its classic opening: "To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth..."
And I knew what I had to do.