I’ll bet you can tell me where you were when Kennedy was assassinated. Can you tell me where you were when the Challenger went down? Where were you when the Twin Towers were hit? There are moments in our life where space is emblazoned in our memory. Name the event and where you were is there. That is how it is with me when it comes to memorable books.
Books have always taken me to new places. I have gone to countries all over the world. Regions of the United States have become real to me. I have explored mountain ranges and mesas. I have been to old England and Stonehenge and Asia and the Great Wall. I have known the oceans and the jungles--all within the pages of a book. Since I was a youngster, books have taken me places. From the once-a-week bookmobile that visited our school, to the town library, to the grocery store where my mom would load us up on Golden Books, I would carry my book and the pages would carry me to a new world.
As a high school student, I remember when a book captured my heart and took me to an emotional new world. I distinctly remember where I was on that notable day. Sitting under an oak tree in my front yard, shade shielded me from a hot, muggy, early August day. The sky was blue, filled with soft cumulous cotton candy clouds. Sweat hung in the air. A cool lemonade coupled with the shaded yard spared me from the dampness. It was a kind of summer day that is one of many in an endless summer where time is slow and Labor Day seems far, far away. On that day, time and location, stopped for me and I became entwined in the pages of a book.
The book I was reading was Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keys. Charlie, the main character and narrator of this short, sweet novel told the story through his own writing. Charlie was developmentally delayed and wrote in very simple language as the novel began. His misspellings and simple understandings of his world were endearing. He lived in the world with simplicity and trust. In the book Charlie’s intelligence grew because of an experiment. With his intelligence he did not stop being a lovable character, but his perspective of others changed as he saw that not everyone had good-hearted intentions toward him. I loved Charlie as I read this book. I fell in love with a simple character and cheered as he gained intelligence and overcame the obstacles of his past and his present.
Then the tears flowed. The moisture of that day took on a new life. As I sobbed, I sweated and sobbed some more. Charlie stole my heart. The shift in writing at first was almost unperceivable to me. A simple misspelling. A thought portrayed with ackward sophistication. And then, before Charlie said it, I knew that the experiment was failing. Charlie was losing his intelligence. I mourned with Charlie as he went from bright to slow. As his fear grew and he noticed the change, knowing what that would mean for him, sadness and fear flowed from him to me, sitting under that Cincinnati oak tree. I was heartbroken and relieved as he no longer recognized the change and became the endearing and trusting character that I knew at the beginning of the book. As I sobbed in the shade of that space, sweat, tears and the dampness of a muggy day entangled, and my emotional world became a bit bigger. It was the first time that words in a book took hold of my heart. It was the first time I fell in love with a character and felt him as part of my life. Charlie reached up from the pages of the book and held my heart. Because of Charlie, I became a bit more vulnerable…a tad more compassionate.
And emblazoned with that hold, the space in which it happened is unforgettable, much like my fourth grade memory of being at school and hearing that our president had died. I mourned with Charlie under the shade of an oak tree on a sultry summer day. Since then I have met many Charlie’s in the pages of a book. Characters have captured my heart and have made me better for it. Probably because of that memory, I hold reading spaces dear. I can tell you where I was when I met McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Likewise Little Willy and Searchlight in Stonefox or Leisel in The Book Thief. Place holds a memory for me around books in the same way that place marks the passing of important world events.
Summer is near and I have been thinking about where I want to read this summer. Will it be the hammock in my backyard, overlooking birdfeeders and flowers? Will it be on the shores of a lake on days that I am slowing down to fill up? Where will I be when I meet the next character who captures my heart and makes my world bigger? I can’t wait to find out!
Epilogue: Fast forward 15 years later. I am visiting my family house in Cincinnati with my daughter. We had traveled from our New York home to say our goodbyes to the house where I grew up before my mom relocates to something smaller. My small and sprightly daughter skips through the front yard and clambers on top of an old stump. “Look, mommy! Look at me! I am on a bridge!” She is standing on what remained of my old oak tree—an old stump that had never been grinded to the earth.
“Yes, Rae, you are standing on a bridge.” I think to myself, “Yes, this is a bridge. A bridge that linked me to books on a new level. A bridge that is now linking the old to the new.
Final Epilogue: I recently visited my mom in Cincinnati. She has been out of the family home for over 20 years. My pixie 3 year old is a beautiful 26 year-old. Mom and I drove past her old house. “Look,” mom said. “The bridge is still there.”
“Yes,” I replied. “It is.”