I was pleased and surprised to find out the Vancouver Island Regional Library offers books for a six-week lending period for those who are “shut-ins.”

That’s a great service. I have read so much over these last four months. Four months of not walking but lots of reading! I’ve become a faster reader, galloping through so many books by Donna Tartt, Patricia Highsmith, Kate Atkinson, Helen Humphreys and Elizabeth Strout. Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabelle Dalhousie series was perfect for the weeks following surgery. (Isabelle is a philosopher with a big inheritance. Life seems fairly simple and sweet.)

I was thinking, because I can’t go anywhere without someone else’s assistance, don’t I have more time to read and therefore can return books sooner? Someone else does have to return my books for me so there is that aspect to take into consideration. Although I’m not driving yet, I am walking with a cane. It’s been fun to see my physiotherapist’s mouth and those of other friends, drop open with surprise when they see me cane walking. It’s been a great feeling of independence. And I actually did walk into our local branch the other day.

countrybunnymycopyWhen I was very young, my Great Aunt Cec would send me books or perhaps she’d bring them when she came through the front door, banging it while announcing in her loud voice: “I’m here.”

I was in the first reading group in Grade One in the public school in Eganville, Ontario and that could be due to those books from Aunt Cec and learning to pick out words in my Grandpa’s newspaper.

Grandma and Grandpa, with whom I lived until I was nine, had “Readers Digest Condensed Books”, the Bible and a bedside table full of copies of “The Upper Room.” I looked at the condensed books and found them yellow and worm-holed. Could I have attempted to read a condensed version of Wuthering Heights at the age of seven or eight?

I delighted in the new books the librarian showed us at school. I would set up my own table of books at home describing them to an audience of dolls and one clown called Ernie.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe picture Dad took of me in bed with books open around me (when he visited) could have been taken yesterday – older by several decades, a different location, and no Dad to take the photo – but I still surround myself with books in bed.

Mum had her favourites – Dorothy Parker, Josephine Tey, A.A. Milne — but I went exploring on my own when I moved to Toronto. I remember going to the Bookmobile on Saturday mornings and coming home at the age of thirteen with books by Leon Uris, Taylor Caldwell, Ayn Rand and Daphne du Maurier. Hours would be spent lying across my bed reading Rebecca or Frenchman’s Creek.

One evening a couple of friends and I – I was an adult then – decided that we learned a lot from books even if we didn’t read them. I recalled that sometime in the eighties, I acquired many books for my education as a feminist. I may have skimmed them but didn’t read them beyond a few pages. I absorbed what Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, Andrea Dworkin and others had to say by keeping their books nearby. Or maybe I carried them under my arm as I did as a child before I could read.

Reading books and acquiring books can be two different passions I’m realizing. Sometimes I have brought new books home for the look, feel and smell of them. When I last lived in Toronto in the late nineties, I was on my own and would go to Book City on Bloor Street to browse and bring home a few new books to keep me company. They always did.

Some people collect books on shelves, not to read again, but perhaps for their companionship. “I have always thought of books not so much as something to read but as something to live with,” Anatole Broyard wrote in a New York Times article a few decades ago. (He was recalling “Moving Day: The Books I Left Behind.”)

Broyard recalled having thirteen cents in his pocket with no immediate prospect of anything more. He knew he could get $7.50 for his out-of-print edition of The Last Poet in New York by Federico Garcia Lorca but “of course I could never sell my Lorca – for you see, it was my Lorca, my friend Lorca.”

He did actually sell the copy because he “had read it idly, never under pressure.” I’m passing along many books these days and they’re finding new energy with their new owners who are sometimes passing them along to others to enjoy.

As the years passed, Broyard received many books for review, his book shelves were full, and he had to let many of them go when he moved to a smaller house.  “Once you willingly suspend your disbelief about giving them up, anything can happen.” (The article, published in the New York Times, in 1989, the year before Broyard’s death, can be accessed here.)

As for actual reading, I’m remembering those shiny covered books I read at Uncle Len and Aunt Irene’s cottage – The Bobbsey Twins and Nurse Barton was it? And all those Nancy Drews. Mysteries still fascinate me such as those by Peter Robinson, Elizabeth George, Louise Penny and Kate Atkinson.

Sometimes I write passages from books as found poems. Here’s one I call “Sacrificial Lambs” (from Shadow Child, a memoir by Beth Powning):

These warped and scorched things are like
sacrificial lambs. I’m willing to exchange them
for the moment that I’m living. We give up
on the list we try to make of the things that we lost;
there isn’t time to dwell on what can’t be recovered.

virginiawoolf“Each of us has an appetite that must find for itself the food that nourishes it. Reading omnivorously, simultaneously, poems, plays, novels, histories, biographies, the old and the new,” Virginia Woolf said in “The Leaning Tower,” included in The Moment and Other Essays.

Lately I’ve been going through the notebooks I’ve kept about books I’ve read.  The notebooks contain my own personal reviews and reflections which I rarely read again. I’ve decided to make lists with quotes and let the notebooks go. It seems I’m a perpetual recorder and archivist, keeping track of everything I do.

During some file purging, I found a list of books I had read between 1975 and 1977. Remember I’m OK – You’re OK by Dr. Thomas A. Harris? I had also been reading Agatha Christie, Robertson Davies, Truman Capote, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Jane Rule and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea.

There’s lots to be learned from reading and from writing reviews of books for publication. Virginia Woolf wrote reviews which offered some income but she also got to analyze what worked, or didn’t, in a book. She published hundreds of essays and reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and others.

Danell Jones who wrote The Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop (Bantam Books, 2008), took a unique approach to writing about Virginia Woolf as if Woolf was teaching a writing workshop in the present day.  Jones wrote: “[The writing of reviews] steeped her in language, she explains, and it taught her to think more deeply about the art of reading as well as the art of writing. You see, she says, serious reading is essential to serious writing. Reading closely, taking detailed notes, she explains, allows you to weigh a book, to enjoy the writer’s strengths and to understand his shortcomings. It was an important part of her creative enterprise, she reflects, this reading and measuring of others’ work. And she enjoyed writing essays about the books she’d read; she liked meditating on the ways they had shaped her as a writer.”

“Learning how to be a good reader is what makes you a writer,” Zadie Smith told an audience at the 15th Annual New Yorker Festival.

farawaynearbyEssayist Rebecca Solnit, in “Flight,” an essay included in The Faraway Nearby (Penguin, 2013) wrote: “Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.”

Solnit writes of children’s books, something I’ve found a new interest in, and goes on to write: “The object we call a book is not the real book, but it’s potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.”

I’ve been passing many of my books on to others lately and they’re finding new energy. One friend said she understands me more from the things I’ve ticked in a book I passed on to her: The Call by Oriah Mountain Dreamer.

In a commencement address poet Billy Collins said while reading, our pencil acts as a kind of seismography to register the mental tremors we’re feeling as we read. “Such jottings are a sign of our presence, and the book we hold in our hands becomes not just The Heart of Darkness, but my reading of The Heart of Darkness – the silent communication and conversation that took place between me and Joseph Conrad.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the books in which I have more than pencil tickings is How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry by Edward Hirsch (Harvest/Harcourt, 1999). My copy is complete with pink and purple post-its, orange  highlighting and purple, wavy underlining. Hirsch quotes Emily Dickinson who said: “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know, is there any other way.”

There is no Frigate like a Book
to take us Lands away . . .

Emily Dickinson

Some writers associated with the Writing Studio at the Banff School of Arts were asked: “What book made you the writer you are today?” Lisa Robertson said it was Talking by Phyllis Webb. Lisa was living on Salt Spring Island circa 1980 and would run into Phyllis at the market or the book shop and said: “I think she was the first poet I had ever seen.”

Phyllis Webb’s essay called “Waterlily and Multifoliate Rose: Cyclic Patterns in Proust”, led Lisa to read Proust. Then she started buying poetry chapbooks by Phyllis and Michael Ondaatje published on Vancouver Island. “Everything must come from that moment in my life – my love of sentences, my notion that a woman can live freely and be a poet, that poetry is made and read in a shared landscape.”

I was introduced to the work of Phyllis Webb in more recent years and met her on Salt Spring Island at the new library when I gave a reading there in the Fall of 2014. How lovely to contemplate that “shared landscape” as I read and write in the landscape shared by so many of my fellow poets.

writingdownthebonesReading the diaries of Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin let me know about women writers’ lives and processes and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (now in its 30th year and published by Shambhala) let me know the importance of life writing. I was very much, and still am, all about the process and I was pleased to discover Writing Down the Bones probably soon after it was published in 1986, about writing as spiritual practice.

I got my copy off the shelf recently to remind myself to “Burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel.”

In recent years, I’ve become fascinated by the various genre-bending forms fiction and non-fiction can take. Anything is possible: a novel like Ruth Ozecki’s For the Time Being for instance in which her protagonist is also named Ruth and a cookbook like Susan Musgrave’s A Taste of Haida Gwaii that is also a memoir with poetry and tales of Haida Gwaii, all written with Susan’s unique wit.

I like to think that when I fall,
A rain-drop in Death’s shoreless sea,
This shelf of books along the wall,
Beside my bed, will mourn for me.

from “Bookshelf” by Robert Willliam Service