The Timeliness (and Timelessness) of Books

My friend Jenny says, a book comes into your life at the appropriate time.  She, mother of three-year-old twins, is reading Moby Dick.

I.

This summer I rode down (or is it up?) the Nile with Cleopatra and Caesar, paying homage to Isis and sacred crocodiles. I sailed across the Mediterranean with my retinue of ships laden with gifts for Rome, including a giraffe and golden cutlery. I partied in the ancient city of Tarsus, reveling in excess, and I explored fabled Alexandria with its Canopic walkway lined with colonnades and wide enough for six chariots to ride abreast. At the end of this stretch I saw The Great Lighthouse in all its giganticness.

Before I embarked on this journey I knew nothing of Cleopatra, apart from a vague sense of her beauty. I hadn’t bothered to absorb any of the floating rumors because Stacey Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life, hadn’t yet fallen into my hands. So I didn’t know that, as a young woman, she disguised herself and wrapped herself in papyrus to sneak into her palace, under siege by Rome. I didn’t know that she bore children to both Caesar and Mark Anthony. And I didn’t know her fate, though I had forebodings. So for me, the book was a fabulous page-turner, a delight, a chance to embody a time and place lost, and celebrate a woman who lived and loved in epic proportions.

II.

Leaving for an early morning flight to Bozeman, Montana, I grab a book off my shelf. The Waves by Virginia Woolf. It’s an odd book, a series of soliloquies, and the cast – Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, Louis –  start off as children, then in a few pages, come of age and embark on youthful pursuits. I’m en route to Montana State University, to see my son launch himself. The book reads like a post-modern opera, with each character declaring their perspective in a rush of poetic intonation. It’s mesmerizing, incantatory. I tremble, I quiver, like the leaf in the hedge, as I sit dangling my feet, on the edge of the bed, with a new day to break open. I have fifty years, I have sixty years to spend. I have not yet broken into my hoard. This is the beginning.

Was I waiting until this precise moment to crack open this tome, to let these words spill over me in this transformational moment, with a new set of realities beckoning, hurtling me into the unknown? How did Woolf anticipate my state of mind?

III.

Another early journey, this time to ride various conveyances (train, ferry, bus), to meet my mom and dad at a meeting with a heart specialist. For my commute I grab A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I know everyone’s read this book long ago, when they were children, or seen the movie with Oprah. Well, not me! I remember, as a child, feeling that this was an important book, but being exceedingly stubborn (like Meg, the protagonist), I refused to open it, despite loving books, because my sister, Beth, had read it and enjoyed it, and because it had something to do with science, or, at least, space, and I wanted to make a statement (to myself, to the book fairies who keep track of such things?) that I would not be so easily pulled over to the other side.

Recalling all this as if it were yesterday, I open the book (it is my sole selection) and read. I’m sucked in instantly. Amazing how 40 years of resistance can be broken: It was a dark and stormy night. I turn pages, emboldened. Would my life have been different if I’d read this book as a child? Would it have helped to see my own father as fallible, to not feel betrayed by him? Would Meg’s anger have released my own rage, so that I didn’t have to hold it in?  She had found her father and he had not made everything all right. . . She was frozen and her omnipotent father was doing nothing. She teetered on the seesaw of love and hate.

Or is this short minded of me? Is it better to focus on the themes: the parent/child dynamic (I wanted you to do it all for me. I wanted everything to be all easy and simple. / But I wanted to do it for you, that’s what every parent wants.) ; fate vs. self-determination (You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.) ; and love as the ultimate answer – themes that resonate with me at this particular point in time? There is never a wrong time to wander into the worldly, wondrous pages of a well-worn and ever-patient book.

 

 

 

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