On the last page, I let them go.
Not a grand farewell but the kind of whispered last moments lovers in movies have, clutching with whole bodies and frantic with grief that goodbye might mean forever. That the only souvenir of their love story would be the retelling of their days.
I was in fourth grade when I read To Kill a Mockingbird.
I carried it with me dog-eared and though it was a school copy, I wrote in the margins with my number two pencil underlining words and trying to gulp down the significance of a story I never lived. I never returned that book and I wish I had that copy today to see in those loopy scribbles what my nine-year old soul grappled with.
I’ve read it countless times since then, but as much as I love it, it has never been the same as my first.
My love affair with literature started as a child, in the melodic cadence of my mother’s voice floating over me like a song as I buried into her lap, but my understanding of how a story could mean something beyond my fourth grade nothing was aroused with Scout and Jem, I looked at Atticus and saw the kind of person I wanted to be, wise to the world but not crushed by it.
It was the first time I remember moving past the entertainment of a story and sinking into the meaning and power of words to help me live a better story.
I found myself face to face with a vulgar and beautiful world where ordinary heroism could only be seen when the tragic and grotesque rose up against it.
Every triumphant character needs a worthy adversary and suddenly they were more than dragons or monsters, they were our very thoughts and ideas. The power of words to reveal hidden ugly depths surging beneath racism and fear and oppression was a wise benefactor, investing in me, in a way the pedantic children’s books had not. I wanted nothing to do with being taught lessons so much as I wanted to experience the coming of age, from innocence to understanding.
I learned that to read deep and well, you give yourself to every character, like a marriage of souls, you invest in their lives.
I remember feeling the sting of jealousy when I realized I wasn’t the only one reading these words and scribbling in the margins about purity and faith, poverty, social inequality and stereotypes, about the choices we make. It felt so intimate that the assault of Cliffs notes, mass produced and peeking bright yellow from my peers lockers when we were required to read it in middle school, made me feel my private thoughts were being prostituted.
I felt privileged when entrusted with the inner thoughts of characters, to sit in on their conversations, and map their hearts as they shared their lives with me.
Because you can read a book or you can love a book and there is a difference.
You trust the characters to be noble or wretched or both. You seethe and hate them, wishing with every page the author’s final damnation of their wickedness. You prod them along with the foresight of a wizened mentor and wish they would grasp what you’ve come to know chapters ago. You see the vanity or the grief, or the confusion in their faces as you turn each page.*
You are more than a voyeur, peeping in on life you have no right to see.
You live as a character in the very pages, because a story done well will bring out the soul matter. The marrow of our combined human experience and the very reason we are better for having read and understood.
It is the reason we cannot turn the light off even though the hours fade from night until morning, that we stagger under the loss of characters and mourn when we lose them over and over each time we read.
It is the reason we cannot pass a stack of books at a garage sale without stopping to finger through them, looking always for treasure.
It is the reason we find ourselves going back to love worn pages and trying again to get lost in the passages like a love story remembered.
It is the reason we try to make the last chapter last longer, to slow down because you know the end is coming and you will close the spine and you’ll never be the same again.
Sorry guys, I got carried away tonight. The * is when my five minutes ended but I just had more words so I kept going for a few more. Get me talking about books and I just can’t help myself.
So you know the drill. Five minutes. Free write whatever comes to mind with the word prompt. This week is Last. Then join the party over at Lisa Jo’s and link up, making sure to spread the love. That’s really what we’re all about. This community does encouragement like a boss, there you go Lisa Jo, a shout out to you.
What is your first memory of a life changing book? If you write, what do you hope your writing does for your reader?