He ate and drank the precious words,~Emily Dickinson
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book. What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!
What is it about our favorite books–not the ones we liked or even loved, but the ones we need almost as viscerally as breath? There are books I revisit from time to time, stories that never grow old but rather new, richer, stories that unfold a little more each time I return to them. These are the “precious words” Dickinson is talking about–the ones that can change everything, that transport us, that have the power to save us from our circumstances and even ourselves.
I don’t know why, but I haven’t felt my usual need to read this year. It feels odd to not be in the midst of a book, to not have a pile of them stacked up and waiting, to not binge-read hundreds of pages in a couple of days. But for some reason, since the beginning of this year, I just haven’t wanted to read.
About a month ago, though, I picked up my well-read and pencil-marked copy of Moby Dick. I am not sure I’ll ever be able to articulate why a 21st century feminist writer/French teacher/wife/mother would need this book the way I do–but I do. I need it. It is, for me, one of those life-giving books. I even like the tedious chapters on whale body-parts. I realize this makes me something of a freak. I could not care less.
I haven’t been blowing through the book the way I usually do. Instead, I’ve been reading it in bits and pieces, slowing down, finding new passages to underline. By the time I’m eighty I will probably have underlined half the words in the book. It’s fascinating the way a very conscious, deliberate re-reading of a familiar book can become a reading of oneself as a reader, too. The things that years-ago me found necessary to underscore are still vital, but now there are more things, new things, words I missed fully appreciating on all my previous read-throughs. This book keeps transforming itself in my hands. Like Janet in the tale of Tam Lin, I keep hold of it, but just barely. Sometimes it threatens to twist out of my grasp.
Wings indeed. A book is perhaps the truest form of freedom, not only because it frees us from this world for a little while, but because the story itself is free to grow, change, eternally become.