Gimbling in the Wabe – All That You Can’t Leave Behind

A few weeks ago, a dear friend of mine had to evacuate from his home near Idyllwild, CA, due FleeingFireto a raging forest fire in the San Jacinto mountains.  His house, while not directly at risk, would be threatened if the fire could not be brought under control; residents were asked to leave not only because of the potential danger, but also to make it easier for the emergency vehicles to move around as needed, and so as to not draw upon the water pressure and possibly impede the firefighting equipment.

I am happy to report that the fire has been almost completely contained – only smoking stumps remain – and my friend’s house escaped any damage (other than a pervading smell of smoke, and ash).  I’m not sure if he’s returned yet; I’m waiting a few more days before contacting him, because I imagine his life has been interrupted enough lately.

When we did manage to talk last week for a few minutes, he told me that he luckily had a place to stay not too far away, but that he could only take one load of important “stuff” (my word, not his… he’s far more eloquent than I am) when he and his wife (and dog) left, because once you drove out of town – for any reason – you were not allowed back in.  That made me think about how hard it would be to leave so much behind, not knowing if you ever would see it again.

We too often hear about, and see via our media outlets, homes that have been devastated, lives that have been disrupted, families that have suffered due to fires, tornados, hurricanes, floods and other acts of god; we see the devastation left in the wake of those catastrophes and hear the affected speak of the grief and shock of their loss.  Almost always, though, these same victims feel lucky if no life was lost or no loved ones were injured; everything else, they state, can be rebuilt, can be replaced.  And they are right.

My friend’s recent experience, though, made me stop and think about what I would take if I could pack only one carload along with my family and pets, not knowing if what was left behind would survive the impending doom.  What would be most irreplaceable, more precious in its linked existence to me, than random other things acquired over a lifetime?  And then it hit me like a ton of bricks:  my books.  I own so many books.  They are the roots of my comfort.  What if I could only take a few with me?  Which ones would I choose?  Invariably, they could be replaced, most of them at least… but which ones are sentimental beyond their shelf value?

As an exercise, then (because like most people, I don’t ever really think catastrophe will come to me), I decided to identify 10 books – not my 10 “favorite” books, but the 10 books I would most hate to part with if I had to make an emergency evacuation of my home.  And here’s what I came up with (in no particular order):

  • My Riverside Shakespeare.  It is a valuable, venerable book, given to me by my parents at a time when they could not afford it, but they found a way because they knew how much it would mean to me; it literally was a gift of love, something to always treasure.
  • The well thumbed paperback copy of Gone With the Wind that I’ve had since junior high school.  It’s pages, yellowed and worn through multiple readings, are precious to me.
  • My signed copy of Patrick Rothfuss‘s The Name of the Wind; it’s a cheap paperback, but the memory of the road trip to Wisconsin with my friend Scott, going to the reading, interacting with Pat (I was star struck and he was so fun!) and getting the book signed still fills me with unmitigated joy.
  • A hardback copy of The Silmarillion that two friends from my college days gave me; over the intervening years we have lost touch with each other, so their inscriptions in the front of the book keep them and the times we shared from slipping out of memory.
  • The paperback copy of Jacqueline Carey‘s Kushiel’s Dart that I picked up on a whim at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport at the start of a business trip; I had never heard of her and had no knowledge of her works, but she has since become one of my very favorite authors.  This simple volume reminds me that treasures can be hidden in plain sight at any given point in our lives, and that it is the unlooked for joys that sometimes resonate the deepest.
  • My copy of Brady Allen‘s Back Roads and Frontal Lobes, even though I’m not a bona fide devotee of short stories and horror is not usually my genre of choice, but Brady is a good friend – and he mentioned me in the acknowledgements.  When I first saw that, my jaw literally dropped in shock – and then I started crying, because it was so unexpected – and empowering.  We all need validation in our lives, and Brady’s simple action gave me that that at a time when it was sorely needed.
  • My copy of Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, because it changed my life.
  • My grandmother’s leather bound copy of Oliver Twist of which I became enamored in 3rd grade (yes, I read Dickens in 3rd grade); it is one volume out of a complete set published in 1884, and would probably be valuable were it not so worn.  (I would take the whole set except the exercise is limiting me to only 10 total books – there are 11 volumes in that collection alone.)  This book set me on a course that I daresay has driven the rest of my life.
  • Tomie dePaola’s Mother Goose, even though its spine is torn and the pages are starting to fall out; a few are taped or have stray crayon marks on them.  Not only did I read these rhymes to my children when they were little, but the illustrations were used by a friend to hand-paint a border on the walls of their nursery (which my daughter still uses as a bedroom); Tomie‘s lovely depictions of Little Boy Blue and Little Bo Peep, Mother Goose and the cow jumping over the moon, with stars and rainbows and other soft and colorful images are indelibly linked to their childhood and my memories.  Many years later, I read this book to Alzheimer’s patients, and those wonderful ladies loved the rhymes and the pictures as much as my children did.
  • Whatever book I am currently reading, because if I am having to flee my home for a (hopefully) temporary displacement, I will probably need something to do while waiting to return, and to keep my mind from wondering what I will do if I cannot return.  If I’m lucky, it won’t be a book about a dystopian future that is meager and bleak.

Of course, this is just an exercise.  I hope to never be faced with such a dilemma (fingers crossed, knock on wood, pinch of salt and all that).  But, to be honest, this exercise also made me realize just how much “stuff” – again, my word, I kinda like it – I own that I take comfort in simply because it is there; not to actually utilize but more to landscape with – that would be a shame if it were taken from me, but not a tragedy.  I could leave most of it behind – but it sure would be nice coming back to it again.

What about you?  What books do you have that you would most hate to leave behind?

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