During the winter of 2014, I was struck down not just by the polar vortex, but by the flu. Stuck at home, I did what comes naturally in such situations — I went to my reading room and picked out a book.
I chose the work of that great British philosopher, A.A. Milne — yes, “Winnie-the-Pooh” in the original. I heard Judi Dench reading from it in a rerun of “As Time Goes By,” and it sounded so good that I just had to have it. Of course that was easy, even with the flu — I went to the shelves in my reading room and got it.
When I got to Chapter 2, described (with Milne’s typical Capital Letters for Important Words) as “In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets Into a Tight Place,” I found Pooh stuck in Rabbit’s doorway and asking for help: “Then would you read a Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness?”
I stopped short. Pooh hadn’t found his “Sustaining Book” yet, but he was in one –– I had found the book that sustained me that day, as it has many times before. (My name is in my copy — in my mother’s handwriting.)
That reminded me of other times when books have sustained me. The most recent example was after I moved in October 2013. I had switched to the 147 bus, but I had no real idea how long it took to get to work and back on it. Then I decided that on my unfamiliar journey, I needed something familiar — something sustaining, although I wasn’t calling it that yet.
I picked up “The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes” and took it along. I soon discovered that my trip to or from work on the 147 bus took just as long as it takes me to read one of Conan Doyle’s short stories about Holmes. Familiarity at last — having read them since 1977, I know how long it takes to finish one story. Re-reading the stories sustained me during the commute (no small feat, even last autumn).
I’m not the only re-reader I know. Leslie Reese, senior programs manager and facilitator for Reading Against the Odds Literacy Chicago and my “Friend in Books” (a title she gives me, as well), told me in a recent letter that she has enjoyed re-reading many parts of “Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy” since the 1990s. She also enjoys poetry by Lucille Clifton, Mary Oliver, and Pablo Neruda, along with the essays of David Sedaris, which she says “make me laugh and feel that maybe my own life experiences aren’t the weirdest.”
My friend and fellow blogger Weather Girl mentioned Italo Calvino when we first spoke about books. But when we continued to talk about re-reading, she told me about Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” She called my mention of “Sustaining Books” a sort of gift that keeps on giving — books doing the sustaining, but in the case of Bradbury’s story as she told it to me, books being sustained by their readers, who kept the stories alive by committing them to memory.
So when you’re in “Great Tightness,” in need of something familiar and sustaining, grab a favorite book. There’s no cost, no risk, just sustenance — for you and the book.
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Filed under: Sustaining Books