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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.


At the Dying of the Year

by Vir­ginia Euw­er Wolff

Now win­ter downs the dying of the year,

And night is all a set­tle­ment of snow… 

—Richard Wilbur, “Year’s End” 

 We all have our cir­cles of par­tic­u­lar­ly mourned lost ones. As our hemi­sphere dark­ens down in this ele­giac sea­son of the win­ter equinox, and death has been so relent­less­ly in the air dur­ing 2015, I wave my own lit­tle flags of grat­i­tude to some of my men­tors and acci­den­tal teach­ers.

bk_Wolff_Robinson160John Rowe Townsend (1922−2014): More than a decade ago, hear­ing him lec­ture on the canon, I sud­den­ly admit­ted to myself that I did­n’t actu­al­ly know Robin­son Cru­soe. I imme­di­ate­ly read it: a sur­pris­ing 250-year-old sto­ry, a sur­vival man­u­al, a panora­ma of ways of dis­cov­er­ing the dai­ly world and of pon­der­ing exis­tence.  And just this week, lis­ten­ing to Trea­sure Island in my car, and being more con­cerned with hawsers and cut­lass­es and scoundrel muti­neers than with speed lim­its or miles per gal­lon of Reg­u­lar, I thank John again for remind­ing his audi­ence to go to sea with Jim Hawkins.   

Lloyd Alexan­der (1924−2007): A life­long music lover, his instru­ment was the vio­lin; he told me that he’d played for years in “a wretched quar­tet” and tact­ful­ly agreed with me about a knot­ty fifth-to-fourth-posi­tion shift.  Every hard-work­ing musi­cian should have such pierc­ing lessons as a wretched quar­tet can teach.  

bk_Wollff_MoreMore160Vera B. Williams (1927−2015): Using her unique micro­scope, she showed us how tiny injus­tices are huge injus­tices and how we might rise to meet them. Among the essen­tial jol­li­ties she cel­e­brat­ed: More, More, More, Said the Baby. Read­ing it with a very young child can’t not make each of us feel bet­ter. And her radi­ant Scoot­er let new light and air into my world.

Wal­ter Dean Myers (1937−2014): Bren­da Bowen put a copy of a new book called Fall­en Angels in my hands in 1989. That sto­ry sharply shift­ed the way I looked at 1968, a year I thought I had known. His books can teach us about every war ever, between two peo­ple or among mil­lions. In our recent  epi­dem­ic of urban vio­lence and despair, I’ve heard myself ser­mo­niz­ing at the evening news: “They haven’t had enough Wal­ter Dean Myers to read!”

bk_WolffNation160Sir Ter­ry Pratch­ett (1948−2015): The giant tur­tle swims slow­ly through space, and on its shell four ele­phants walk in a cir­cle, and on their backs they bal­ance Dis­c­world, whose inhab­i­tants car­ry on with a ludi­crous­ness we can rec­og­nize. But it’s his nov­el Nation that holds pride of place in my book­shelves, where Mau and Daphne go about their baf­fling, com­pli­cat­ing work, encour­ag­ing me by their exam­ple as I go about try­ing to do mine. 

Tom Feel­ings (1933−2003): In his hands the shat­ter­ing sto­ry of The Mid­dle Pas­sage is a col­lec­tion of 64 black and white images, a trag­ic bal­let of almost incom­pre­hen­si­ble cru­el­ty. And every time the media bring me news of a new doc­u­ment or movie or play or poem, promis­ing new­ly pen­e­trat­ing artic­u­la­tion of the appalling crime of enslave­ment, Tom Feel­ings’ indeli­ble por­traits speak up again, mak­ing the unfath­omable fath­omable, shap­ing the sever­est ugli­ness into pro­found­ly affect­ing art.


Ruth Heller (1923−2004): Tire­less, vibrant artist, cheer­leader for gram­mar. Ruth and I cruised down the Yangtze Riv­er togeth­er. She bought a pair of woven boat track­ers’ san­dals on the sun­shiny bank of the nar­row Shen­nong Stream. “What are you going to do with those?” I asked her. “I’m going to hang them in my stu­dio.” “Oh! Then me, too!” (Ever since enter­ing ele­men­tary school, I’ve been copy­ing peo­ple who know more than I do.) My pair of rope san­dals hangs in my stu­dio to this day. Vis­i­tors ask about them, giv­ing me oppor­tu­ni­ties to tell about Ruth and the riv­er.  

George Gib­ian (1924−1999): When I was in col­lege, one pro­fes­sor encour­aged me as a writer. By the time I grasped that I should thank Mr. Gib­ian (a man of mod­est, dig­ni­fied mien and dar­ing intel­lect) in the acknowl­edg­ments of a book, I found that he had died two years ear­li­er.  

Mark Har­ris (1922−2007): The next teacher to encour­age me, 25 years lat­er.  It was he, dur­ing a sum­mer walk on the Ore­gon coast, who direct­ed me to sit in my chair and stay there and keep writ­ing.  The dizzy­ing rever­ber­a­tions of our lunchtime ram­ble set­tled down after a while and I did what he said.

bk_WolffKooserLet’s lis­ten to Poet Lau­re­ate Emer­i­tus Ted Koos­er in Local Won­ders:

Life is a long walk for­ward through the crowd­ed cars of a pas­sen­ger train, the bright world rac­ing past beyond the win­dows, peo­ple on either side of the aisle, strangers whose sto­ries we nev­er learn, dear friends whose names we long remem­ber and pass­ing acquain­tances whose names and faces we take in like a breath and soon breathe away.  

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