Word on the Street

Personal essays from a young journalist in the Sunshine State.

Tag: Stories about books

Falling Asleep in the Boston Public Library

Fast asleep in the company of books

Fast asleep in the company of books

The snoring was loud enough to turn heads. On the otherwise quiet second floor of the Boston Public Library, a man sat with his head titled backward, his arms outstretched, his mouth wide open. I peered at him over the cover of Joan Didion’s “Democracy” and wondered what had made him so tired.

Was it that he was bored silly with whatever he’d been reading? Was it that he was overtired and needed to take a quick catnap? Was it that he had no other place to sleep? I’ve seen a lot of homeless people in the libraries up north throughout the past week or so. Better to wander in warmth, surrounded by labyrinths of literature, than fight the freezing cold, surrounded by staring strangers.

The sleeping library man seemed content being indoors, and apparently pretty comfortable. I’ll admit that I, too, have been guilty of falling asleep in the library. I used to take quick breaks, aka naps, when fatigue set in and my late-night readings of Chaucer and Shakespeare stopped making sense. (Yes, I took an entire class on “The Canterbury Tales” and two Shakespeare classes.)

Sophomore  year, one of my fellow Chaucer classmates and I promised each other we’d sleep overnight in the school library before we graduated. We had heard about a couple of Providence College alums who had managed to “hide” amidst the archives in the basement of the library, which closed at 1 a.m. on weeknights. After the security guards did their last round of checks, the alums said goodbye to the archives and hello to a slumber party on the main level of the lib. My friend and I, who were both book-loving English majors, waited until the night before the last day of senior year to execute our sophomoric plan, but then chickened out.

Given my odd desire to sleep overnight in the library, I couldn’t help but want to document someone else’s bookish siesta. I snapped a couple photos of the sleeping library man, hoping my camera’s flash wouldn’t wake him. I wish I had found out his story, but I didn’t want to disturb him from his long winter’s nap. His wide open mouth, and the loudness of his snore, seemed to say: “Please, do not disturb the peace.”

Messages and Memories Found, Preserved in Books

Just some of what I found in the books on my bookshelves.

Last week I was flipping through my mom’s old cookbook. It’s a cookbook written by Ellie Deaner, who Mom and I used to take cooking classes from when I was a child. The red cover is torn from the spiral binding of the book, and the pages are stained with what looks like butter, teriyaki sauce and chocolate. As I looked at the recipes in the book, I was surprised to see my mom’s handwriting on the pages, little messages alerting readers to which foods Mom thought were “good,” “excellent,” or “eh.”

The pesto pinwheels and cheddar cheese puffs were marked “good.” The beef and nectarine stir-fry? “Not so great.” Underneath the banana cake recipe was a note that read: “12/28/91 very good bread.” And underneath the eggplant dip: “Put eggplant in a collender for 1/2 hour with a heavy object on it so the juice can be extracted from the eggplant.” The penciled messages are hidden cues to which foods I should cook and those that I should stay away from, little helpful hints from Mom.

As I looked at the books on my bookshelves, I realized just how many messages books contain — not plot-based messages, but handwritten messages scribbled on the inside of the book, or on random slips of paper we use as bookmarks and then forget about. I wonder what librarians find in books when people return them. Here are the messages/makeshift bookmarks I found in some of the books on my bookshelves:

  • “A Book of Common Prayer” by Joan Didion: “… We’re all drifting separable golden leaves like little toy boats on the pools in the streets, drifting down and ocassionally touching. ~Lisa.” Dated May 8, 1977, on the inside of the front cover.
  • “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” by Rebecca Wells: “Friends forever!” signed by author Rebecca Wells on the inside front cover of this used book. Not dated.
  • “Becoming a Writer,” by Dorothea Brande: A discolored bookmark from Toronto Women’s Bookstore on 73 Harbord Street in Toronto.
  • “Why a Daughter Needs a Dad,” by Gregory E. Lang: “To: Mallary. From: Dad. So much of this book reminds me of us. <3” Dated Christmas 2006 on the inside of the front cover.
  • “The Digital Photography Book,” by Scott Kelby: The address of a friend who lives in Rome, N.Y.
  • “The Last Hurrah,” by Edwin O’Connor: A sheet of white-lined notebook paper with unknown names and numbers next to them.
  • “Anna Karenina,” by Leo Tolstoy (A 1944 copy I found for $4.50!): “This book is from the hoard of Marie Garher. Read thoroughly, handle carefully. Return promptly.” Not dated, on the inside cover.
  • “Love: Quotes and Passages from the Heart,” by B.C. Aronson: “Mallary, life is all about love. May you enjoy all kinds of love throughout your life.” Dated 2008, on the inside cover.
  • “Tell Me Why,” by Arkady Leokum: Dried flowers and prayer cards for St. Thomas Aquinas, the patron saint of Providence College, and a subscription card for Vanity Fair magazine.
  • “El Alquimista,” by Paul Coelho: A metal bookmark that says: “Courage. Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
  • “Living Out Loud,” by Anna Quindlen: A photograph of my maternal grandfather and his parents and 13 brothers and sisters. On the back is this: “Tom 36, Curt 35, Ruth, 34, Edith, 33, Arthur, 30, Eva, 29, George, 27, Ray, 26, Bob, 24 (my late grandfather), Roy 21, Lilian 18, Albert, 16, Ma 58, Pa 57. July 4, 1951.” Hard to believe that photo is 57 years old.
  • A Boston tourbook: A $50 birthday check! Eek, good thing the check is only a month-and-a-half old.

The messages remind me of my own past, and make me wonder about other people’s pasts. What did Lisa’s message in Joan Didion’s book mean, and who did she write it to? Who wrote on the back of the photo of my grandfather and his family? I usually sign books when I give them to people so that someday, when the novel or cookbook is lying dusty on a shelf in a used bookstore, the message and memories will live on.

What have you found in your own books?

Books That Remind Us of Childhood, How Much We’ve Grown

On my morning commute to work earlier this week, I caught the beginning of a segment on National Public Radio (NPR) about “everyone’s favorite ‘Little Women’ character,” Jo. The second oldest of the four children, Jo aspires to be a writer and is the kind of woman who some say Louisa May Alcott wanted to be. She stands out among her sisters for her headstrong and creative nature, and is a feminist for her time.

In hearing women on NPR talk about Jo, I was reminded of the power books have to take us back to childhood and to make us realize how much we’ve grown. Depending on where we’re at in our lives, we experience the characters in books differently. We often grow to view characters as friends or late-night companions. They become people who we relate to, aspire to be, or promise never to be like. Sometimes we reconnect with these characters years after we close a book, and find that the connection we once had with them has weakened, or remained the same.

One woman interviewed for the NPR segment, for example, said that her view of “Little Women” changed after reading the book as an adult. “It was only reading it again that I realized that I didn’t really like the book. I like Jo the best of them, but I really didn’t like Jo either,” she said. “That family was just too good. And I think part of the thing that bothered me growing up was it made me feel very guilty because I knew I couldn’t be that good.” The woman said that as an adult, she didn’t want to read about the idealized Jo; she wanted to see more of the real Louisa May Alcott in Jo’s character.

Sometimes, we want to see ourselves in fictional characters. I sometimes compare myself to Harriet the Spy, the main character of one of my favorite childhood books, who inspired me to want to be a journalist. I recently re-read “Harriet the Spy” and found that I still loved it just as much as I did as a child. After listening to the NPR segment, I now have the urge to re-read my all-time favorite childhood book, “A Little Princess,” to see how my experience of the book changes.

I think I’ll still love Sara Crew’s charismatic nature, and I’ll probably still smile when I read my favorite scene in which Sara draws a circle for herself on the floor of her attic with a piece of chalk. She tells herself that curled up inside this circle, she will always be safe. I’m sure that re-reading this scene would make me think of my childhood, a time when chalk-drawn circles were safety nets and imagination a companion for loneliness.

Books like “Little Women,” “Harriet the Spy,” and “A Little Princess” (all pretty girly, I realize!), can bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood, brining new meaning and understanding to the stories in books and those of our lives.