In The Walls Around Us, the story in a book is sometimes all a girl may have to herself in the world, now that her freedom has been taken away. I understood this deeply when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. I would have been the girl in Aurora Hills who gravitated toward that book cart, who read every single title in that library at least once and probably more, who found an escape route in those pages… and stayed as long as she could.
Nova Ren Suma wrote a lovely piece on her blog about the use of books in her most recent novel, The Walls Around Us. Her words here resonated with me for a number of reasons. I relate to that, of course, as a girl who lost and found herself in books over and over, especially as a teenager. Her words also resonated because they reflected what she wrote about in her essay for Feminism for the Real World. But you’ll be treated to that in the future.
She rounds her piece about the importance of books in our lives with a question: what three books would you take to prison with you? Or, perhaps, this is a question that could be posed as what books you’d take with you on a deserted island for the rest of your life?
I’ve chewed this question over many times in my life. I’ve certainly got a stack of books I consider influential, the kinds of stories I’ll read and reread. But what books would make that final, all-important cut? Which ones would I choose to keep with me?
The first book I’d take with me is my all-time, absolute favorite book: Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant.
I first read this book early in my college career. I reread it time and time again thereafter, completing yet another reread early last year. This book has changed with me; in the last reread, I picked up on things I’d never seen before — namely, how young, how inexperienced, how grappling-with-becoming-adults the characters in the book are. Through college, the cast had been older than me, but reading it at age 30, suddenly, they were mostly my age or younger. Yet, it still struck me with beauty and starkness, with the challenges of relationships. The settings of this book are always what sparkle for me, between the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles and the bleak, cold, snow-covered plains of Alliance, Nebraska.
In college, my husband and I did a lot of traveling by car, and on one summer, we drove from Iowa to Montana to see my roommate get married. From Montana, we drove down to Austin, Texas, so I could see the University. On the way, we did an overnight in Alliance — the sky threatening tornadoes, the wind and rain battering our car and the windows of the somewhat shady hotel we’d selected. We drove around and it was incredible to see what did and didn’t match up with the novel. Both of us had read and loved the story, and being in that place, just a few months after we’d both been to Los Angeles for the first time, impressed something into me about this book, about the power of stories, and about how moving setting and place can be.
I’m a huge non-fiction fan, and I attribute a lot of that to falling madly in love with Scott Weidensaul’s The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species. I’ve only read this once, but I think about it regularly. I know it’s the kind of book I’d want with me in prison/on an island because this is a book about people who believe and the lengths they’ll go to in order to follow a hunch.
Weidensaul follows scientists who are convinced about the existence of extinct or lost species. It’s fascinating to see what drives these people to seek out things that no longer exist. If you’re familiar with John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back, there is an element of the book about the search for the Lazarus Woodpecker; this piece of Whaley’s story is also a precisely what Weidensaul’s book is about. Where are those long-lost woodpeckers? Who seeks them out? What happens and who believes the story if one of these so-called lost species are found?
Being in isolation in any capacity requires some kind of hope that there is more than the present moment. Falling into a book — non-fiction — about human’s search through wishful thinking and discovery could only bring comfort and connection.
So what would book #3 be?
The truth is, I can only pick two. That third spot I leave empty because it is downright impossible for me to select a title I’d need to have with me. Not that there aren’t books that would fill that hole; instead, there are too many, and I want that space saved for all of those books I simply can’t take.
Perhaps I’d use that third space to bring along a notebook, where I could capture my own stories, as well as the stories of those who might, however impossibly, stumble upon me in a prison cell or a deserted island.
Tell me: what would YOUR three books be?