Books That Become Friends
Yesterday a dear friend sent me an article by Salman Rushdie called Ask Yourself Which Books You Truly Love. The author talks about the power of story and the kind of stories that get told and re-told in different cultures and at different times, then challenged readers to figure out which books we truly love. Rushdie thinks that the books and stories we love make us who we are, though that can certainly change over time. It started me thinking about the books that have meant the world to me throughout my life, some of which have definitely shape my world view.
One of the first books that I can recognize as deeply influential was Blue Mystery by Margot Benary-Isbert, and to a lesser extent, her Wicked Enchantment. Both were translated into English when I was just beginning to read to myself and I loved them as stories about magic and brave girls who stood up against injustice and loved plants and animals as much or more than people. Only on reading them to my granddaughter did I discover how deeply this author shaped my attitudes about and relationship with the natural world through her passion and respect for wild things.
Outgrowing Old Favorites
These books still offer a great deal of enjoyment, unlike another great early influence, The Lord Of The Rings. I discovered that trilogy when I was eight or nine and read it over and over for many years. Last year, when I turned to this beloved book for comfort in the dire times, I was saddened to see more misogyny than enchantment. Tolkien’s nature writing is still lovely, but his characters are shallow and the women are just paper dolls. Similarly, I can’t read Dorothy Sayers—once a great favorite—with pleasure anymore, as I keep getting caught by her racism and classism.
That’s true of the Little House books too; they have sections that are truly awful and I can’t in good conscience read them to my granddaughter. Instead, we’re reading Caddie Woodlawn, a pioneer story set in a similar time period but with a far more respectful presentation of Native Americans, as well as the truly delightful Tea Dragon Society series, which is lovingly respectful to everyone and everything in nature.
Books That Made Me A Gardener
In my college years, a friend’s dad who worked at Rodale Press donated a bunch of organic gardening books to guide our newly formed Big Brother Big Sister community garden project. I memorized those books and was enchanted with soil building, turning garbage into compost, and watching beans sprout from dry seeds into soaring vines with leafy wings. A few years later, a clerk at my neighborhood coop gave me a battered copy of Vita Sackville-West’s Garden Book and I moved from vegetable love to infatuation with ornamentals. Vita was a poet and a vivid writer who taught me to really LOOK at flowers and foliage, buds and branches. She also got me using a magnifying glass to discover the tiny details that reveal the natural magic of the plant world, something my grandkids now enjoy as well.
My fellow New Englander, Ruth Stout, was another early influence, practicing practical soil healing and feeding plants with her own compost. Down to earth and wryly witty, she intelligently simplified the information she imparted, rather than obscuring it, as high falutin garden writers of the time tended to do. Instead of writing down to the lowly, she wrote as a neighbor and a friend, offering useful information backed up by science when available and always by experience. Margery Fish had a similarly pragmatic style; she came to gardening late in life, after a successful career, and viewed conventional wisdom as a guideline to be tinkered with freely. She taught me to experiment and try things that “shouldn’t” work, and if they didn’t, to try again, changing variables, until I could figure out why this or that plant preferred certain conditions.
I think I’m a writer because of Louise Dickinson Rich, whose book, We Took To The Woods, I bought for a nickel at a library book sale when I was in second grade. Louise knew she wanted to be a writer and live in the woods and she by gum did it, however unlikely that was for a woman in the 1930s. Homesteading in the midst of thousands of acres of deep woods, she held a more practical view of nature than other writers I admired, making it clear that living in the wild was not a stroll in the park. Later, I spent a year at 10,000 feet in the Rockies, in a small and funky log cabin abandoned after a gold mine shut down. As I hauled water and cut and split astonishing amounts of deadwood for our tinny little wood-stove, I remembered that book and those lessons with gratitude.
Since I grew up back East, I spent that year wandering around the mountains, learning just where I was and what was going on all around me. I sketched wildflowers and birds in the meadows and fish in the little streams, then looked them up in fat handbooks by night, reading by lamp light, memorizing their habits and intertwining families. One patch of avalanche lilies would all have black stamens, while another cluster not far away would have fluffy, golden stamens. What was that about? How did ouzels manage to walk under water? Why were the fish tiny in this stream and plump in that one? Why were the floating sheets of tiny bugs that clogged the streams all black over here and bright orange over there? Why are the shooting stars so tiny as you go higher up the mountain?
Learning to make sense of all these patterns and many more helped me feel grounded in this new territory. I felt far from the tame New England woods and meadows of my childhood, yet found comfort in identifying cousin families of plants and critters I knew well. Later still, when I began designing gardens, I found The Pattern Language book an enormous help, as the various patterns it presents explain why people never use this bench but often use that one, or why some parts of a garden never get used despite being as well planted as another area that saw constant use.
Now in my 70th year, reflecting on all this helps me see these influences on my patterns of thought and action that I hadn’t recognized before. I was an odd and lonely kid, with few friends and very little congenial family, so it was natural to make friends with books instead. The people in my favorite stories were as real to me as anyone I interacted with, and much more fun to be around. The ideas and skills my book friends gave me helped shape who I am, how I experience the world, and what I do well. I started reading very early and remain a constant reader, finding books that stretch me, like Amber Ruffin’s You’ll Never Believe What Happened To Lacey, an almost unbelievable true series of vignettes that will curl your hair worse than any horror movie.
How About YOU?
So how about you? Are you befriended by books as well? Have your old favorites held up to the test of time? I’m always bemused when people tell me they never re-read a book, because re-reading a book I truly love is like visiting a dear friend in a much-loved environment; I can relax into it, enjoying the familiarity even as I freshly notice details and nuances that I might not have been ready for earlier.
This past year-plus of woe has enabled me to see shades and shadows I may have missed or glossed over before, in my comfort reading as well as my challenge books. Living in the present also affirms my deep and abiding love for both the wildness of natural world and the smaller, more comfortable world of gardens and gardening. That balance and that grounding has helped me stay sane (more or less), and I’m so grateful for it. All of it. How about you?