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The Books We Keep Forever

J.R.R. Tolkien Maker of Middle-EarthA few weeks ago, I stood at the cor­ner of 37th and Madi­son Avenue in New York City and gazed long­ing­ly at the ele­gant pink mar­ble build­ing that housed J.P. Morgan’s library, now the Mor­gan Library and Muse­um. In late Jan­u­ary 2019, the Mor­gan will host the “Tolkien: Mak­er of Mid­dle-earth” exhib­it. I’m too ear­ly.

I only trav­el to New York every three or four years, but I’ll come back to see this exhib­it, even if I have to crawl. You see, I read The Lord of the Rings when I was thir­teen. After­ward, I moved to Mid­dle-earth and stayed the next eleven years. I drew pic­tures of hob­bits and Gan­dalf and thumbed to page 126 in The Return of the King again and again to expe­ri­ence the most thrilling sen­tence in Eng­lish literature—“Rohan had come at last.”

I have sev­er­al copies, includ­ing the 70s hard­cov­er edi­tions in slip­case, a heavy one-vol­ume edi­tion I read with the book propped on a pil­low, and the movie-based ver­sions. But the books I prize most are the 1967 Bal­lan­tine mass mar­ket paper­back edi­tions with Bar­bara Remington’s strange cov­er art. Orig­i­nal­ly, I checked out each vol­ume from the library, read it in school, in bed, in the car, as I walked, and returned it fever­ish­ly pray­ing the next vol­ume would be on the shelves. When I found the paper­backs in the first book­store in Fair­fax, I near­ly faint­ed. My very own Lord of the Rings!

Lord of the Rings

The fan­ta­sy made me want to tell every­one about the tril­o­gy and at the same time tell no one. I want­ed Tolkien’s mas­ter­piece all to myself. This is a com­mon notion among bib­lio­philes. In her mem­oir, My Life with Bob: Flawed Hero­ine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, Pamela Paul writes, “I con­sid­ered cer­tain books mine, and the idea that oth­er peo­ple liked them and thought of them as theirs felt like an intru­sion.” I also want­ed more Lord of the Rings, but there wasn’t any. And The Hob­bit didn’t cut it.

Those paper­backs went every­where with me, house to house, state to state. In each move, things got left behind: year­books, my high school diplo­ma, my mother’s kitchen table, the dress I was mar­ried in (not a wed­ding dress). But nev­er Lord of the Rings.

boy reading while walking to school

On my last morn­ing in New York, I wan­dered around the Upper West Side with chil­dren walk­ing to the var­i­ous P.S.’s and pri­vate schools I’d read and won­dered about in books like Har­ri­et the Spy. They walked with par­ents and nan­nies and baby broth­ers. They walked with friends and dogs and sib­lings on scoot­ers. These three chil­dren stayed ahead of me. At first I thought the boy was star­ing at a device. But he was read­ing a book! He wasn’t catch­ing up on home­work, he turned the pages too fer­vent­ly. His book was so engross­ing, he couldn’t put it down.

In an essay in the Octo­ber Harper’s, William Gass writes of his beloved Trea­sure Island, a cheap paper­back that saw him through “high school mis­eries,” went with him to col­lege, and was stowed in his Navy duf­fle dur­ing WWII. Despite the yel­lowed, brit­tle pages, Gass admits, “That book and I loved each oth­er.” He doesn’t mean the text, but the phys­i­cal book. Books on a screen, he main­tains, “have no mate­ri­al­i­ty … off the screen they do not exist … they do not wait to be reseen, reread; they only wait to be remade, relit.” I can’t imag­ine squint­ing at The Lord of the Rings on a Kin­dle, try­ing to find page 126 in the third vol­ume, unable to lose myself in Remington’s cov­er art that forms a trip­tych when the indi­vid­ual books are lined up.

As a child in the 80s, Pamela Paul sought vin­tage “yel­low back” Nan­cy Drews. The orig­i­nal 30s blue spine books were too old, and the new paper­backs were “loath­some.” She pre­ferred the 60s edi­tions with their inte­ri­or draw­ings and “broody cov­er paint­ings.” The qual­i­ty of the paper, the bind­ing glue, the end papers made the book a trea­sured object, “the vase as much a plea­sure as the flow­ers.”

The books we keep for­ev­er are the ones we owned back when buy­ing a book was a big deal. When we made the effort to track down spe­cial edi­tions. When we would walk and read because the book would not leave our hands. I hope the book that New York school­boy was read­ing was chang­ing his life, that it was his, and that he would keep it for­ev­er, no mat­ter where he went in life.

After high school, I got a job as a sec­re­tary. I hung a poster of Remington’s Lord of the Rings cov­er art over my desk. (Clear­ly, I was not your aver­age sec­re­tary). At the age of 24, I decid­ed it was time to leave Mid­dle-earth. This com­ing Jan­u­ary or Feb­ru­ary, I’ll return to New York to see Tolkien’s orig­i­nal papers and draw­ings and maps. Mean­while, I’ll re-read my Bal­lan­tine paper­backs. The door to Mid­dle-earth is always open.

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The Need for Secret Places

honeysuckleIn the fifth grade, my best friend and I dis­cov­ered a tan­gle of hon­ey­suck­le in the scrub­by woods bor­der­ing our school play­ground. It would make the per­fect recess refuge. All we had to do was pull the hon­ey­suck­le from inside the cir­cle of saplings it was twined around, leav­ing a cur­tain of vines.

The next day, we sprint­ed into the thick­et and began rip­ping out vines. Hon­ey­suck­le, we learned, often grows with poi­son ivy. When we were no longer coat­ed in calamine lotion, we fin­ished our hide­out. Each recess, we dashed down the hill when the teacher wasn’t look­ing and zipped into Hon­ey­suck­le Hide­out. Hav­ing a secret place at school, where we were cor­ralled by adults, gave us an exhil­a­rat­ing sense of free­dom.

Until the day three sixth graders invad­ed our Hide­out. The pres­ence of sneer­ing, old­er girls shat­tered our pri­va­cy. Our haven sud­den­ly seemed child­ish and the pow­er we’d felt spy­ing on oth­ers dimin­ished in an instant. We were back in the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion of ordi­nary kids.

Although I had my own room at home, I made a den from a blan­ket-cov­ered card table, cob­bled a makeshift play­house inside my clos­et, and claimed the nook behind the fur­nace in our base­ment. In these places I felt safe and seclud­ed. The books I read fueled the need for secre­cy: the gate­house-turned-club­house in the Trix­ie Belden mys­ter­ies, the Melendy sib­lings’ Office in The Sat­ur­days, the dumb­wait­er Har­ri­et the Spy squeezed into, the Bor­row­ers’ realm beneath the floor­boards.

four books

Once, I spread a tarp inside a roll of unused chick­en wire sit­ting along one side of our gar­den. I crawled inside. Rag­weed and tall grass cloaked the fence roll from view. The tarp floor smelled musty. I tucked a box of Milk Duds and my library book in a fold at one end. The cat joined me. We whiled away sum­mer after­noons as bum­ble­bees drowsed in the clover and a thrush sang sweet­ly deep in the woods.

I didn’t know then that place-mak­ing helped con­nect me to the plan­et. Qui­et and hid­den, I began to under­stand I was part of the larg­er space shared by the bum­ble­bees, the thrush, and the cat. I con­tin­ued to cre­ate these sanc­tu­ar­ies no mat­ter where I lived. As poet Kim Stafford said in his essay, “A Sep­a­rate Hearth:” I would take any refuge from the thor­ough­fare of plain liv­ing … there I pledged alle­giance to what I knew, as opposed to what was com­mon.

The geog­ra­phy of our pasts is lit­tered with snow forts and retreats beneath rhodo­den­dron bush­es, tree hous­es and havens under front porch­es. Secret spaces, no mat­ter how tiny or crude, expand to accom­mo­date kids’ fan­tasies and imag­i­na­tion. Children’s den-mak­ing, says Col­in Ward in The Child in the City, car­ries over into adult­hood. “Behind all our pur­po­sive activ­i­ties, our domes­tic world, is this ide­al land­scape we acquired in child­hood.” I still carve out sanc­tu­ar­ies to escape dish­es and laun­dry and, nowa­days, the inva­sion of email.

In my 1920s themed sit­ting room, the small­est room in our house, I sit on the floor sur­round­ed by vin­tage children’s books, old per­fume bot­tles, and McCoy vio­let pots filled with col­ored pen­cils. I write notes using my grandfather’s cedar chest as a desk, read, or work on art projects. Each evening, I wind down in this cozy room and let the day waft out the win­dow.

Secret PlacesWhere do today’s chil­dren craft their pri­vate spaces? I nev­er see kids in my neigh­bor­hood build­ing forts or play­hous­es or even sit­ting under a tree. As Eliz­a­beth Good­e­nough says in her book, Secret Spaces of Child­hood, “With­out a cor­ner to build a world apart, [chil­dren] can’t plant what [author] Diane Ack­er­man calls ‘the small crop of self.’”

Many kids escape adults in their bed­rooms, holed up with lap­tops or Play Sta­tions. Apps and games let chil­dren cre­ate mar­velous king­doms. A house made of sticks can hard­ly com­pete with, say, the sophis­ti­ca­tion of Fortnite’s “Loot Lake.” Yet a space of the child’s own mak­ing pro­vides soli­tude and expands to accom­mo­date fan­tasies and imag­i­na­tion. Secret places in games are bound­ed by adult-cre­at­ed rules, the prod­uct of some­one else’s imag­i­na­tion. Those seem­ing­ly lim­it­less options are con­tained in a box.

How will chil­dren find their place in the world in front of screens? Hands tap­ping plas­tic keys can’t feel the fiber tough­ness of hon­ey­suck­le vines or the rough sur­face of a sun-warmed tarp. Eyes focus­ing on flick­er­ing avatars can’t track the up-and-down flight of a blue­bird. The player’s sense of iden­ti­ty, dis­guised in a “skin,” is mere­ly a reflec­tion in the glass.

Bet­ter to seed that small crop of self with books which give a child ideas, words that flour­ish into men­tal pic­tures, and send her out the door to build her own pri­vate king­doms.

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