Little Free Library

Little Free Libraries have been popping up everywhere in Newton these days. We’ve had a Little Free Library in our neighborhood in Waban for a couple years now; there have been two at “The Street” in Chestnut Hill for nearly as long; and in the past few weeks, others have appeared in front of the Waban Library Center, a house on Beacon Street, and a house in Newton Centre.

Take a book, leave a book

Anyone can put up a box filled with books with a sign telling passersby to take a book and leave a book, and it seems our neighbors are fond of reading and encouraging others to read. Although I mostly read books borrowed from the public library these days, having so many Little Free Libraries around is encouraging me to re-visit my shelves, looking for books I’ve read and don’t plan to revisit.

No book-lover likes to weed out books; ideally, we’d keep every book we’ve read or wanted to read. But giving books away is different. Leaving a book in a Little Free Library feels like the bookish equivalent of catch-and-release fishing. Having held a book in your hands for a little while, you set it free for some other reader to enjoy.

Just Paint

There’s an inherent danger in starting a new novel by an author you’re familiar with, for the new work has to fight against the expectations engendered by the previous. I first encountered Marilynne Robinson’s debut novel Housekeeping in the early ’90s, when I was a Masters student at Boston College, and in the intervening years I’ve repeatedly taught (and thus repeatedly read) it for the “Literature of the Open Road” class I teach at Keene State. When in 2005 I first read Robinson’s long-anticipated second novel, Gilead, it took me a while to warm to the story. It’s difficult not to make comparisons between a first and second novel when you’ve repeatedly read and taught the former during the years you waited for the latter. With her new novel Home, though, Marilynne Robinson invites comparison between her previous narrative and its successor, as Home tells the exact same story as does Gilead, but from a completely different perspective.

Bear'sVille Place

That switch in perspective makes all the difference, for even though I revisited (via audiobook) Gilead right before starting to listen to Home, I didn’t feel like I was being cheated by mere rehash. In Home, Glory Boughton’s perspective on her wayward brother’s story is as different from the Reverend John Ames’ account in Gilead as any two novels could be. In Gilead, the Rev. Ames writes as an old man who struggles to forgive his own namesake, John Ames “Jack” Boughton–the wayward son of his childhood friend and neighbor, the Reverend Robert Boughton. Rev. Ames is a Congregationalist and Rev. Boughton is a Presbyterian…but both clergymen share a similar outlook when it comes to young Jack, who returns to Gilead, Iowa after a long absence. Neither Rev. Ames nor Rev. Boughton knows what Jack Boughton, now in his 40s, has been up to for the past 20 years, but neither minister believes it can be any good. In Home, Robinson returns to Jack Boughton’s story, but this time as understood by Jack’s 38-year-old sister, Glory, who has returned to Gilead to tend her ailing father after having gone to college, taken a teaching job, and settled down elsewhere.

Stars and strips

Having read Gilead, I approached Home as a detective might re-visit the scene of a crime gone cold: where are there clues–hidden or brazenly in the open–that I missed the first time? Jack Boughton’s life is a modern re-telling of the parable of the prodigal son: having left Gilead after he shamed his pious family with a string of much-gossiped misdeeds (the very acts Rev. Ames agonizes over in Gilead), Jack returns to his father’s house after years of presumably misspent youth. No one–particularly the elderly and increasingly decrepit Rev. Boughton–knows why Jack has returned, and no one seems bold enough to ask him. Home at last, Jack is nevertheless a stranger to his own family and hometown, and his pained conversations with his sister Glory offer the only hints readers get into his unknown life outside Iowa.

If you’ve read Gilead, you know (eventually) the secret Jack harbors: you know the heartbreak that eventually drives him home. Reading Home with this bit of secret knowledge, you find the novel rife with dramatic irony. Privy to the story Jack isn’t telling, you note each of the clues that Glory, Rev. Boughton, and Rev. Ames miss. Privy to the story Jack isn’t telling, you wonder when, how, or whether his full story will be known.

Trust is unnecessary

Jack Boughton isn’t the only wayward child in Home, however. In Gilead, Rev. Ames notes that Glory Boughton returned to Gilead to tend to her father after the failure of her marriage; in Home, you learn that this, too, is an impartial story. Both the Boughtons and the Ames–like, perhaps, the inhabitants of Gilead itself–are quietly proud, keeping both their joys and sorrows close to their hearts. Whereas Gilead, like Housekeeping before it, is a first-person narrative, told in the form of a long letter Rev. Ames writes to his young son, Home is narrated in the third-person. We as readers aren’t privy to Glory Boughton’s hidden heartache, but a fragmentary story emerges from both the narrator’s limited view and the snippets of story Glory shares with her brother as they grow in confidence. At times, particularly at the beginning of the novel, the narrative seems to creep on crippled feet, the dialogue between Jack and Glory being so painfully polite as each tries not to betray the other’s feeble trust. In time–by book’s end–you realize that shared confidence is a sacred thing, not to be entered into lightly.

Cosmic Moose

Although I found myself occasionally comparing Glory, who feels trapped in Gilead by filial obligation, to the rootless character of Sylvie in Housekeeping, Home is more closely akin to Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. Each work features a piously close-knit Presbyterian family headed by a strict minister father; both the Boughtons and the Macleans deeply love one another but seem uncertain how to communicate that love. Whereas in Gilead, the Rev. Ames struggles with the question of whether a lifelong troublemaker can truly change, in Home both the Rev. and Glory Boughton struggle with the difficulty Norman Maclean faced in A River Runs Through It: how can you help a troubled, self-destructive loved one who doesn’t seem to want your help? Both Glory and Jack Boughton come home to their father’s house in Gilead when it seems they have nowhere else to turn: home, it seems, is where you go when every other road leads to a dead-end. While Glory Boughton is able to maintain an appearance of respectability in tending her father, however, the Boughtons, Rev. Ames, and all of Gilead, it seems, know Jack as nothing but a failure.

Parking by permit only

With Gilead fresh in mind, I wondered as I listened to Home how Robinson would end the story. I knew how Gilead ended, but I suspected Rev. Ames wouldn’t (indeed, couldn’t) have the last word in this alternative account. Knowing the secret that Jack keeps meticulously hidden from his father and sister–a secret whose unveiling serves as the emotional turning point of Gilead–I wondered when, whether, or how Glory, her father, or any of the town would learn the reason for Jack Boughton’s absence from and eventual return to his father’s house. As Robinson’s retelling, from a slightly different perspective, of a familiar story continued, I tried to guess various ways of bringing the narrative to a close, all of them somehow unsatisfactory. The ending of Home is much better than I envisioned: not exactly happy, but ultimately hopeful. Even when you’re exiled from a place you never felt native to, the hope of home can be an enduring balm.

2009 Audiobook Challenge

This is my first review for the 2009 Audiobook Challenge, whereby I pledged to listen to (and review on-blog) twelve audiobooks in twelve months. If you’re interested in participating in the challenge, please visit J. Kaye’s Book Blog for details; you can access links to other participants’ audiobook reviews here.

I’ve already begun listening to Toni Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy, so I’ll review that as soon as I’ve finished. In the meantime, if you’re intrigued by the colorful images accompanying today’s post, feel free to view my complete photo-set showing the funky fence at the corner of Franklin and Brookline Streets in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Enjoy!

From my library

As cruel fate would have it, I’ve never had enough room for books. When I lived with my parents in Ohio, I was a mad collector of dust: my bookshelves were filled with, yes, books, and model horses, and knicknacks of every stripe. Under the bed, I had boxes of bones: owl pellets, scavenged rodent jaws, a whole and entire deer skull. Crammed in my closet were scrapbooks full of clippings, stamps, bottlecaps. If it could be held, captured, or scavenged, I found a way to collect it. And if it had pages that could be turned, I wanted to read it, own it, hoard it.

From my library

Book hoarding, along with stamp and model horse collecting, became my means of escape. Growing up in a neighborhood without children my own age, I spent hours in my room reading, daydreaming, or writing. I was preternaturally precocious, wanting to know the name of every flower and the habits of every bird. Even when I myself was a child, I never got along well with children; my mind was filled with adult thoughts and concerns, my interests lying on the shelves of the grown-up section of the library. I read Lolita before I was old enough to be one of Humbert Humbert’s nymphets, and I read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf not long after most of my classmates had moved past the Big Bad Wolf. In a word, I was a wildly weird child, and books were one expression of that weirdness. When other pubescent girls were panting after the latest teen heart-throb, I was fretting over which avian field guide was the best.

From my library

I’ve recently been sorting through my books. When Chris and I sold our house in Hillsborough and moved to Keene a little more than a year ago, my library went through a massive downsizing. Previously, my books filled two full-size (floor to ceiling) bookshelves along with a shorter chest-high shelf; I had extra books tucked above, behind, and before the ones that fit on shelves. By the time we packed to move, I’d sold over half of my books, some online, others in a massive garage sale in which we nearly gave away possessions. Although I’d resigned myself to the relinquishment involved in consciously downsizing from a 3-bedroom house to a 2-bedroom apartment, there were two garage-sale transactions that broke my heart: the sale of the overstuffed chair where the dog and I would curl up to read, and the sale (to a used book dealer) of the complete set of Thomas Merton’s journals. “Try to keep them together,” I pleaded. “Other folks have wanted to buy a single volume or two, and asked which one was the best,” I explained. “But journals should be read from beginning to end, and I never had the time…” The used book dealer nodded, sympathetic, as if we were discussing a litter of kittens looking for a good home, but we both knew the truth: good homes for esoteric books are hard to find anywhere, and Thomas Merton might struggle to find a home here in New Hampshire.

From my library

When we moved to Keene, Chris and I shared a single bookshelf, with some of my books spilling over into a living room curio cabinet and others being stashed in my office at school. Slowly, though, the collecting bug crept in again: one innocent purchase there, another here. Although I’ve acquired with practice the discipline of checking the library for a book before I buy it, there’s always the allure of ownership: if it’s mine, I can keep it, and write in it, and always refer to it. If I own it, I can have it at hand at any hour when I need it or want to refer to it or need to cite it: a scholar’s occupational hazard.

From my library

Even more difficult than downsizing a library, though, is the seemingly simple act of splitting one: there’s something heartbreaking about sorting previously shared books into stacks labeled “his” and “hers,” each destined to their own separate place. When Chris and I married, we’d both recently graduated with Bachelor’s degrees in English; having taken many of the same classes, we owned many of the same books. Back then we decided whose book to keep based upon the notes therein: my copy of the Walt Whitman Handbook stayed as did his copy of the Riverside Shakespeare. Now nearly 13 years later, we’ve gone through the same process in reverse: having continued to study American Literature first as an avocation and now as a career, I got custody of our jointly-purchased first edition Leaves of Grass facsimile whereas Chris claimed the copy of the Blue Cliff Record he’d bought for me some years back. Many of the books we split are filled with notes from happier, more innocent days, but these notes don’t necessarily correspond with who got what: my copy of the Gospel Parallels contains Chris’s neo-pagan scrawl whereas his copy of the Diamond Sutra has margins crammed with my scribblings.

From my library

One book that both Chris and I had owned before we married is The Cloud of Unknowing, a primer on prayer by an anonymous fourteenth-century English monk. It seemed obvious that I’d end up with this book: over the years Chris and I have danced on every conceivable side of the Christian/Buddhist divide, but I always naturally found myself on Christian ground, my longing for a personal God leading me smack-dab back into the arms of Christ crucified. So the other day when I checked to see whose copy of The Cloud I’d inherited in the split, it was like reuniting with an old friend to discover my maiden name signed inside its cover, my multicolored notes and underlinings covering its oft-read pages. (Click here for an enlarged view.) Who was it, I wonder, who wrote these notes: who was this 13-years-younger version of myself? I’ve had this book so long, its cracked spine lightly gives up its yellowed pages, a book I literally read to pieces. So who was that Lorianne DiSabato who thought she knew a thing or two about prayer and the God those prayers are directed to? What Cloud of Unknowing did she labor under when she thought “’til death do us part” was an attainable task?

Old annotations

Whoever Miss DiSabato thought she was, Dr. Schaub now tries to carry on, rearranging remaining books on lightened shelves and retrieving those that hid out for a year in an office at Keene State. Whether we have enough places for our books, they presumably have places for us, holding in their leaves old hopes crushed like dried flowers. Opening an old book, who hasn’t been surprised to find an old photograph, note, or dollar bill long forgotten, a bookmark from a long-ago, hurried moment? The books we choose to own also often choose to own us, preserving in their pages a snapshot of days gone by, the youthful dreams of selves we’d forgotten, shelved.

This post in my contribution to the Ecotone biweekly topic, Places for Books. And after you’ve perused the other postings to this topic, be sure to click on over to The Coffee Sutras to wish Kurt a happy birthday. Kurt is one of the bloggers I read before I myself started blogging, so in one sense “Hoarded Ordinaries” would not exist without “The Coffee Sutras.” So even though I’m a committed tea-drinker myself, Kurt, here’s wishing you many caffeinated refills.