Monday, January 24, 2011

The Rules of Ownership

So John Green, a favorite author of mine due to his great writing skills but also his great speaking skills and his great being-someone-you'd-like-to-have-a-beer-with skills, says a lot of really great stuff. One of his strengths as a writer is coming up with wonderfully short sentences that manage to convey infinite amounts of wisdom. Behold:

“...being the person who God made you does not and CANNOT separate you from God's love.”

See? Brilliant—that’s an entire religion in one sentence.

One thing he said in his video today really struck me, because it’s something that I have felt and I have said in different ways, but not as eloquently know...not in public. About his debut, Printz-winning novel, he said:

“The Looking for Alaska that you read is not quite like the Looking for Alaska that anyone else reads.”

In essence, the reader makes her own meaning, and, in a way, owns a story. This immediately made me think of a memory from my childhood, one that I feel defines me in a very precise way. The memory is about tornadoes, briefcases, bathrooms, and books. It has multiple endings, as most stories in life do, but the first one, chronologically, is the most applicable here.

Tornadoes are a scary reality for anyone living in Nebraska and North Texas. Those residents know the hard-and-fast rule about where to go when those sirens go off: preferably a basement, but at the least an interior room with no windows. In Nebraska, we had a basement full of toys, so when an alarm would sound, we would gather in the room where my most precious possessions (i.e. the Pony Paradise Estate) already lived. In North Texas, however, basements were scarce and the only room in the house that offered protection from a storm was a small bathroom off the kitchen. Two adults and four children could barely fit in it, so the GI Joes and My Little Ponies had to take a backseat. The rule was: each child could choose one thing, and one thing only, to bring into the bathroom.

It was during this period of my life that I stumbled on a book in the library called Kristy’s Great Idea by Ann M Martin. I quickly fell, be-speckled-eyes first, in love with the Baby-Sitters Club series. I saved up allowance dollars and bought the books at book fairs, garage sales, and used bookstores. They topped my birthday and Christmas lists for years—especially the Super Specials, which were larger and more expensive. There was a four-foot horizontal shelf in my closet specifically reserved for the series, which quickly filled the space with its pastel rainbow. The collection was my pride and joy. I strutted around my room, secure in the knowledge that I could quickly name off the titles of the first thirty or so books. I kept them neat and dust free, always in order. I adored each one and never leant them to any one.

When the sirens sounded, then, there was no doubt in my mind what was coming into that bathroom with me. Luckily, my father had recently traded his old briefcase in for a smaller and sleeker model. The old briefcase, with its tattered leather cover and brass combination locks next to the handle, became mine. In the minute and a half we had to scramble everything together, I could stack 60 books very neatly into that briefcase, snap the locks and haul it across the house. The bulk of the series fit into the main compartment, lined with worn down cream velvet, striped with pen marks. The Super Specials were lined up in the lid where partitions meant for organizing papers and files held them in quite snugly. I would pause for a moment before slamming the lid and admire the covers, the way they lined up in each stack to form a perfect grid of smooth, slick paper.

I am sure my mother had actually meant for us to bring one small item in—a picture album, our baby blankets, or perhaps a small toy. I still maintain, as I did then, that the books were all enclosed in a briefcase, which is one item, and therefore was allowed.

Looking back, I wondered why it never occurred to me that those books were just about the most replaceable items I owned. If a tornado did in fact rip through our house, tear our roof off, and destroy the contents of my closet, the cost to replace the entire series would be under $400.00. Today this seems like a rather paltry sum—less than the deductible on my renter’s insurance. At ten, however, that was more money that I had ever seen.

I don’t think the money was really an issue, though. I doubt it even occurred to me that there was a way to replace the books. In my mind, the books that I owned were the only ones I could own. They were mine, no force of nature had any right to take them away from me. I had marked in the margins, dog-eared the pages with my favorite passages, stamped a “This Book Belongs To” note in the inside cover of every single one. By being in my possession, they had become part of me, each book was not only the means by which I experienced the story, but part of the story itself. The way I read the story was imprinted on them—a little bit of me being left on every book I read. A newer, cleaner edition with whiter pages would not have the same familiarity, would not tell the story in the same way. Those books in the bookstore belonged to someone else, would be read by someone else and interpreted by someone else. I wanted my books, my stories. Those, to me, were truly irreplaceable.

I no longer have those BSC books. They were lost to the attic or to yard sales after I grew out of them and moved on to such rich literary classics as Christopher Pike’s Remember Me and Lois Duncan’s Stranger With My Face (don't worry, my taste in books got better in college). That sense of ownership remained, however, and is probably a contributing factor to my very packed bookshelves. Once I love a book, how can I let it go? It’s mine, after all. All mine.

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