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Remembrance of Books Past


In our twenty-first century world of readers, the debate rages on between lovers of the printed word and those who have opted for the convenience of the e-reader. I am, of course, biased toward the actual book - preferably used, but in good condition - though I don't judge the Kindle readers. Some of my best friends read their books on Kindle. They also have many other shortcomings, and I'm forgiving of those as well. But the primary reason I prefer to hold and read a printed book is because the act of reading is, for me, not just mental and emotional; it is a physical, sensory experience which often remains with me years after the initial reading.

While I don't remember every book I've read, or where I was at the time, there are a few particular titles which, like Proust's cup of tea and madeleine cookie, invoke the memories of a particular place and time in my life. In 1977 Terry Brooks released "The Sword of Shannara", the first in the series. I sat ensconced in my childhood bedroom, shutting out the "real" world and entering the Tolkein-lite universe of elves and dwarves and magic. It was the first book I ever read straight through, finishing it within two days, savoring the feel of the thick mass-market paperback in my hands and the feeling of accomplishment upon turning the final page.

A few years later, at the age of sixteen, I was regifted a paperback copy of Frank Herbert's classic science fiction novel "Dune." (My cousin has scratched out the inscription on the inside cover with a blue ballpoint before unabashedly handing it to me at Christmas.) I devoured the complex, multi-layered tale of a teenage boy growing to understand his own power and fate. Ironically, I lived that year in Scandinavia, experiencing not only the dichotomy of Herbert's arid desert landscape with the dark, frigid winter outside my window, but also the challenge of adapting to an unfamiliar culture just as Paul Atreides does with the Fremen people.

As an adult, I found myself camping at Yosemite and reading Tom Robbins' "Still Life with Woodpecker." Again, another mass-market paperback, and a quirky, humorous tale which the cover claims is "a sort of a love story that takes place inside a pack of Camel cigarettes." The Camel logo is on the bookcover itself, and the story implies that there exists hidden visual messages in the logo. So now, when I see a pack of Camels (which occurs less and less these days), I remember the smell of campfires and pines, and relaxing summer days on the Tuolumne River.

And then there's train travel. Anyone who has spent more than a few hours traveling by rail knows that it's imperative to be in possession of just the right kind of reading material. On a rail trip through Europe, I lost myself in Margaret Drabble's trilogy, "The Radiant Way," "A Natural Curiosity," and "The Gates of Ivory." She follows her characters from Great Britain in the 1980s to Cambodia in the 1990s with a somewhat rambling but unexpected and challenging narrative. Her authorial voice seemed perfectly suited to the soothing, rhythmic train journey. And oddly, when I now hear or read of any reports about Cambodia, I momentarily flash on the green fields of northern France and Belgium.

Reading a book can often provide us with a connection to others -- to the characters in the story, or to the author, or to others who have also read the book and shared a similar literary experience. But sometimes the act of reading is uniquely individual, contributing to our collection of life memories that no one else will ever share or understand. Like the books themselves, these remembrances enrich us, and repeatedly remind us of who we are, where we've been, and how far we've come.

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