Back home in Kentucky, the endless enervating heat of August is referred to colloquially as “the dog days.” But for a particular subset of library patrons here on the Eastern Shore, August could just as easily be called “the book days.” These are the folks who are finally getting the chance, after months of sweat and toil, to head off to some place pleasant for a week or two of much-deserved vacation.
Working at the library you learn to recognize these people by the secret little smiles they wear, as if they were privy to some special grace not bestowed upon the rest of us, and the unusually large number of books they carry in their arms as they walk up to check-out. The smile says they know that soon, today or tomorrow, they will escape all this, leave us working stiffs behind to go someplace where they can kick back and do whatever they like. The load of books they're carrying means they plan to make their escape mental as well, that even lying on the beach or sitting in the cool of some mountain glade, they will not permit their minds to slip back into the habits of thought and anxiety that have characterized their working hours.
I recognize these signs, understand their meaning, for the simple reason that I too have worn such a smile, carried a similar load of books.
It is a commonplace, I suppose, that the last day of a vacation is always a little sad. But for me the real melancholia sets in only when I begin to pack up my books and, inevitably, discover there's one I never got around to reading. I remember the hope with which I pulled that book from its shelf, read the blurb on its back, maybe the first paragraph or two. Perhaps this is the one, I would have said to myself, maybe this is the book that's going to change my life. I will come home from this vacation different. I will come home sure of myself, resolute, ready to take on the world and all its myriad challenges.
Of course I never do come home that way. Always it is the same, perfectly ordinary me that unlocks the door of our house, smells again the closed-in air of the life I have always led.
Still, the dream persists.Which, when you think about it, makes a sort of sense. I mean we are, after all, a people of change. We live in a culture that praises mobility, growth, adaptability. We are called upon again and again to reinvent ourselves, to be born again, renewed. Small wonder then that libraries hold such an attraction. A room full of books, after all, is a room full of possibilities. Every shelf holds a surprise, every book has the potential to be the one ... the one ... that utterly transforms our life.
And truth be told, they do change us, don't they? All of us have, I suppose, our own personal canon, the list of books—seldom long—whose stories and precepts have laid the stones upon which, at least in part, we've built our lives. One of these, of course, for me, for many people, is the Bible. The 23rd Psalm, the Sermon on the Mount, “not Solomon in all his glory.” these are among the touchstones of my life. But so too are Wendell Berry's A Place on Earth, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Each of these books was a revelation. I read them and the scales fell from my eyes. I felt like a little boy again. I could hardly wait to get outside, walk around and explore the new world this book, this miracle, had revealed to me.
So I guess I was wrong to say I come home from vacation unchanged by the books I have read. Every book, I suppose, even the dull ones, changes us a little—though I will readily admit it's fireworks I'm looking for. And still the quest goes on. Doubtless this year as well, amid the jumble of tennis rackets and fishing poles that always seems to accompany Melissa and me on holiday, there will be an unlikely stack of books, a pile of hopes and dreams. We will have found them at the Talbot County Free Library.