Bruce Robert Coffin here. Wishing each of you the best 2016 has to offer.
The other day I was busy editing the manuscript to my second novel — far from finished but editing is something writers do when the writing isn’t going so well — when a random thought popped into my head. What is the big deal about books? No really. They are only paper and ink after all. Only words printed on pages, bound together by a spine, sandwiched between two cloth-covered pieces of cardboard, then wrapped in a shiny dust jacket. Nothing too extraordinary, right?
But if books really are no big deal, if they don’t rise beyond the sum of their parts, why then do we love them so? Why do we erect buildings dedicated to them? Why are we compelled to purchase shelves to hold them, and boxes in which to store them? Why do we display our books on coffee tables and night stands as if they were endearing photos of loved ones? Or race to the store to buy the latest in a series? Or stand in line to have one autographed by a total stranger?
I pondered the question for a while. Pondering is also something writers do, especially when the writing isn’t going so well. Suddenly, the answer came to me, like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky (hey, I’m allowed one cliché). Maybe the answer to the question is….that they aren’t really books at all. They are more like portals, capable of whisking us away to strange new places, and new dimensions. To boldly go where no man, or women, has gone before… Sorry, I get carried away.
Books can transport us back to a time when we were different people, younger versions of ourselves. Don’t believe me? Try picking up a copy of Clifford the Big Red Dog or Where the Wild Things Are, then tell me you can’t see images from your childhood dancing before your very eyes. Or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Ronald Dahl. I still recall sitting at my desk in third grade while our homeroom teacher read to us. Still remember trying to imagine what an everlasting gobstopper or a snozzberry would taste like.
One summer, when I was but a wee lad, I pedaled my bike to a local flea market every week so I could gaze upon their vast collection of antique children’s books. Displayed proudly upon painted shelves was a treasure trove of all things mystery. There were Nancy Drew Mysteries, The Hardy Boys, and Spin and Marty, titles that pre-dated me but intrigued me all the same. I can still remember their musty smell and little white price stickers. Oh, what a quarter would buy. So very captivating were their covers and illustrations. I deliberated over them like an indecisive teen perusing the latest record album bin at the local LaVerdiere’s. Even the book titles were brilliant: The Secret of the Caves, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock, The Whispering Statue, and The Mystery of the Dragon Fire. I had no idea what dragon fire was, but I knew I couldn’t wait to get that book home and delve into its mystery.
When I turned twelve, I read my first Stephen King novel, Salem’s Lot. I can still recall the smell of those new pages, the same magical scent as the pop quiz sheets straight from the school office mimeograph. I also remember King’s book scared the hell out of me, as have many of his subsequent works. I read King’s book mostly at night, alone, in my room, frequently unnerved by the feeling that someone was watching me from outside the window. Maybe Danny Glick?
As I aged, my tastes changed, along with my books: One Police Plaza, Tuesdays with Morrie, Of Mice and Men, and A Walk in the Woods. I imagined myself hiking up and down mountains along the Appalachian Trail while chatting with Bryson, or maybe sharing a cream soda with Katz. Each book represented a new chapter in my life, new memories.
More than just paper and ink, books are endless streams of thought and consciousness, knowledge and ideas. Each possessing the power to entertain, to enrich, and to teach us to grow. Books allow us safe passage, an escape from this world to another, if only for a short while. Evoking an infinite number of emotions, the best books are like an amusement park thrill ride, lifting our spirits one moment and then rocketing us downward toward some imaginary horror the next.
What is the big deal about books, you ask? Why not open one and find out?
A great reminder! I’m sure for many of us books were (and are) our best friends.
So many of the books that are memorable to you are also memorable to me, Bruce. Reading is a solitary act but it builds community by giving us common experiences and a shared language. Rather amazing.
Thanks Bruce, I truly enjoyed reading your blog. I taught for over forty years and gave this message to hundreds of children. I just wish I had been able to explain it as well as you have done here.
Thank you for the compliment, Russell. And thank you for your years of teaching young ones to appreciate reading!