“I rushed to the living room to protect myself from I don’t know what,
behind my best friend, a book.”
Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis
For National Book Lovers Day yesterday, Jenny Lawson, author of Furiously Happy and Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, blogged about what a well-loved book looks like:
I use my books. It drives Victor insane. He’s the person who will scream “YOU MONSTER!” at a complete stranger if he hears the sound of a spine breaking, and most of his best comics are permanently sealed in hard plastic slabs, mostly to protect them from me probably.
I live on the other side of the extreme. My books are all broken backs and finger smudges and dog-ears. You can find the best parts of my most beloved books by just letting the book fall open naturally, because it will automatically open to the places it’s been read over and over.
I had never quite thought of it before, but the condition my books are in is indicative of how much and the way I love them. There are the ones whose edges are just slightly worn from moving in and out of purses and around the house so frequently, but which remain in excellent condition overall; there are the ones whose pages are dog-eared and littered with sticky notes, whose bindings flop open at a favorite passage and whose covers are hanging on for dear life; and then there are the pristine, hard-cover copies of books I’ve loved so dearly that I gave my first well-read copy to someone else who I thought would benefit from it as I had.
My first-edition copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is falling out of its binding because I spent many days of my eleventh year of life reading and rereading and rereading it, because it so perfectly described the emotions I was experiencing. Saying that events in my childhood at the time were less than ideal would be an understatement. Lacking the tools an adult has to handle such issues, I spent most of my free time under forts erected with chairs and blankets (logical), reading J.K. Rowling to stuffed animals and listening to melancholic Coldplay songs (I was an unusual child), so Harry’s teen angst and the dark appeal of the Death Eaters was highly relatable to me.
My copy of another of my childhood favorites, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, is one of those pristine, barely-read ones that replaced a well-loved copy gifted to a friend. I had always found myself to be “within and without,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald describes the feeling in The Great Gatsby, the different groups and communities of which I had been a part, to the point that I felt like an omniscient character on the edges of the story, like the Trickster archetype, or the catcher in the rye:
I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.
The most thoroughly “used” book on my shelves, though, is On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Out of all the books that have significantly influenced me, I’d say these three books were the most critical in helping to form my character during my adolescence. But Kerouac I read as a teenager, right in the middle of my struggle to figure out who I was and who I wanted to become, and why on Earth colleges expected me to know the field and career to which I wanted to commit myself for the rest of my life. I was horrified that I didn’t know what I wanted to do or be, frightened that my desire to do nothing but simply be and not to worry about the long-term was unusual and meant that I was slow in achieving adulthood. Kerouac showed me that no one is really ever sure of who they are and where they’re going; we’re all simply at different mile markers “on the road.” It sounds so obvious now, as an adult, but at a time when I felt as if I were being crushed under my fear, it was incredibly reassuring. I’d always felt like an outsider (a deceptively well-adjusted outsider), but for once, someone showed me I was normal! I was just like everybody else! We’re all along for the wacky ride together.
Because I read and reread Kerouac the most during those formative years, he went on all sorts of wild adventures with me. I sat on rugs in friends’ bedrooms and read Kerouac aloud as if performing stage poetry at 2 am while the wine was passed around and around and around. Kerouac lived in my purse the morning after those quiet, thoughtful parties, when we took barefoot walks to watch the sunrise and shake off our hangovers at cafes while we wrote works of our own. I took Kerouac to watch mammoth waves crash on rocky Pacific Northwest shores during stormy weather, days and days away from civilization. I used Kerouac as a writing surface when friends and I wrote collaborative poems, passing paper back and forth between us over campfire light. He’s traveled all over the country with me, because I never know when I might need to hear the things that I found so reassuring years ago.
Today I’m the happiest, most cheerful person I know, but it took these three well-loved and well-used books to help me get here.
If Kerouac were alive today, I think seeing my copy of On the Road and hearing about its travels would make him howl with laughter, yelling, “I dig it!”