Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Point

A week or two ago I read Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. It's a generally pleasing if somewhat meandering story set mostly in a mysterious vertical bookstore. But for about two pages, it became more than pleasing; it became magic.

When the story finally wound its way toward its focus, a secret society that appears at first glance to be devoted to books, I almost dropped Penumbra in the bathwater (the bath being where I do all my best reading). Suddenly I was not just interested, but entranced. It was no longer enough just to live the characters' lives along with them for as long as I could stand the hot water. I was now so engaged in the story that I was momentarily convinced that I, too, must found a secret society dedicated to the glory of the book! I found myself inspired to become part of the story in a way I have not been inspired since I was a kid. Of course turning the page brought disappointment. It turns out the society wasn't so much dedicated to books as to gaining immortality, with books simply the tool. Why would anyone want to be immortal? Blech.

But for that two-page moment, I was thrilled, plotting my own society. For a moment, my life seemed different. That's a feeling I remember from so long ago. The stories I read as a kid could capture me, and the fact that I couldn't pull the characters and their experiences off the page—or dive in with them—was almost anguish.

So when I read that bit in Penumbra, it struck me almost like a scent-memory, the same way that walking into my house in the winter and smelling the gas space heater in the basement invariably makes me think of my grandparents' house, or how the scent of rubbing alcohol gives me the shivers even though the nearest nurse brandishing a hypodermic is miles away, and I'm not scheduled to pay her a visit for months.

The first book that sprang to mind was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg. I have never wanted to live inside any story quite so much as I wanted to live with Claudia and Jamie in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I heard yesterday that Mrs. Konigsburg had died, I started thinking about that feeling, and wondering when I would experience it again. Penumbra is the first time I can remember feeling it, however briefly, as an adult. But as a child it was almost commonplace.

I wanted to journey toward Digitopolis with Milo, live in a boxcar with the Boxcar Children, get a group of friends to start our own business like the girls in the Babysitters Club, hang out with Turtle Wexler while we solved the mystery of Sam Westing's death, and rescue and raise a runty piglet just like when Fern saved Wilbur, among other adventures.  

For me the highest purpose of reading, beyond edification or self-improvement, is to simply become someone else for a little while. Occasionally one runs across folks who sneer that they don't read fiction because it isn't real. What, they ask, is the point? Poet John Ciardi answered that question so much more eloquently than I ever could: 
For a great book is necessarily a gift: it offers you a life you have not time to live yourself; and it takes you into a world you have not time to travel in literal time. A civilized human mind is, in essence, one that contains many such minds and many such worlds. If you are in too much of a hurry, or too arrogantly proud of your own limitations, to accept a gift to your humanity some pieces of the minds of Sophocles, of Aristotle, of Chaucer—and right down the scale and down the ages to Yeats, Einstein, E.B. White, and Ogden Nash—then you may be protected by the laws governing manslaughter, and you may be a voting entity, but you are neither a developed human being nor a useful citizen of democracy.
That's the point.

What characters would you bring to life if you could? All recommendations welcome!


  1. Oh, how I love to live vicariously through the characters in a book! I can visit places I've never seen and have amazing adventures too! Thanks for the mini-adventure through your charming post.

  2. Love, love, love this! This is exactly why I read and why I am still enthralled by all books even so-called young adult and children's books. And I agree with Nancy, this is a charming post.