I eyed the stack of dusty, yellowed books leaning haphazardly against a wall in my mother’s former home. I’ve been cleaning out the rooms, sorting, tagging, imagining earlier days, now that she is settled in an assisted living complex.
The covers were a faded burgundy, textured. I opened one and the musty aroma took me immediately to a green lawn fifty-fifty five years ago. I was ten and it was summer, and I sprawled in the shade of our fir tree in the front yard. My chosen volume was David Copperfield and I was determined to read it all.
The print was tiny, and the tissue-like pages were yellowing even then. But I persevered, at times engrossed, at times plugging through long sentences and longer paragraphs. My first Dickens.
There were other books in those Orinda summers, easier books, girl books, library books, but I recall that slim volume of Dickens with tenderness and concern. It was a mountain challenging me to climb it. And I did.
The books came from a series called the Harvard Classics, Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf of Books, and they had once lined a glassed-in case in our living room. I don’t recall why I chose that particular book or how I went about pulling it down from the bookcase. Perhaps it caught my eye when my sister and I were building forts in the front room.
My parents must have been pretty obliging, or they didn’t care how we used this set of books. At any rate, these Harvard books in our house (as I recall) were mostly used to build forts in the living room. We stacked them, forming walls, and draped blankets over them, creating hidden, secret rooms. Inside our special space we served imaginary tea to one another, sometimes along with imaginary cakes.
So now I eyed the books in my mother’s former home. Could I fit them into a cherished space in my own home? They represented doors opening in my childhood. They were challenges met and rewards reaped. I learned on those ten-year-old summer afternoons, crunching apples and following the words ever so slowly across and down the faded page, not only patience and endurance, but the reward of deep and slow reading, hearing the words in my head. One long chapter at a time I progressed slowly, savoring the pleasure of a complex and richly textured story, discovering the surprise delight of meeting the remarkable characters who lived there.
Just as I built forts with the books, so I built worlds with the words. Both were imaginary, but both carved cities and countries and universes in my mind, places to which I would return again and again, in both my reading and, much later, my writing life. I also think that I created or imprinted a pattern, a way to work through difficulty, as though the process of reading over time mapped my mental growth, in the same way that exercise might build muscle memory.
I eyed the books, and began to pack them into boxes. I would find a place for these treasures somewhere.