A couple of months ago, I wrote a column for a mama-centric website about kids and their blankies. While the child-free and/or child-hating among you may scoff at such writings, there is some merit in thinking about the totems that we carry around with us in order to feel more secure about our place the big, chaotic world. As I was typing along, I realized that I don’t really have a Blankie of my own. As much as I love my flannel jammies and feel they can take the edge off any number of existential ills, they are not a panacea. Grown-ups, I reasoned, leave their Blankies behind at some point because they can no longer believe in the magic.
Three weeks ago, I realized I was full of crap. Actually, I’ve always known I was full of crap just in general terms. The realization was more that I was full of crap on this specific subject as well. A couple of books are my personal blankie. In times of great individual stress, I cuddle with them. Every time I’ve moved, I’ve never felt settled until I had them arranged just so and in plain sight. And whenever it feels like the world out there has begun its descent into total madness, I read them again, even though I know them by heart.
Like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. My copy is now held together mostly by a rubber band and fingerprints. Given the number of times that I’ve read it, screening the recent film was a surreal experience. No, it wasn’t the world I envisioned, but it was a world that I knew intimately no matter what it looked like. At times, I wasn’t sure if I was hearing a real voice-over or had just crafted my own out of the bits I could recite without prompting. It’s a good thing that the theatre was almost empty, otherwise a flock of shushers would have descended on me like a pack of harpies every time I accidentally recited along with the actors. Yes, I am that big of a geek.
I also have a copy of Heinlein’s Friday, which I nattered on about before, close at hand. I’m now on my third copy, since the first paperback exploded one day in a blizzard of pages after spending too long in a damp basement after a move and the second one developed legs after I lent it to an acquaintance. During the last few weeks, after Katrina and the birth of kid #2 -- each uniquely bewildering on a personal note -- my brain has been feeling a bit too addled to tackle anything challenging or, even, unfamiliar. I started rereading Friday, squeezing a chapter in before falling into a coma every night. I’d not read it in a dozen years. In some ways, it’s like I last read it yesterday, simply because I know these characters on an almost cellular level. Or would, if they had cells.
But it’s also completely new in some ways. In twelve years, I’ve learned a lot about the world, about politics, about families. Parts of Heinlein I can no longer fully invest in, like the consequence-free sex or the ability of smart people to solve all of the universe’s ills. I am not alone in this. Friday and Heinlein’s contradictions were the subject of a recent New York Times essay by M.G. Lord. For each of those qualms about the reductive portrayal of women in his later books, there is a new level of his work in Friday that I’m discovering. I never before appreciated how bloody prescient the Grand Master was. Bits of the text describe the current administration in truly accurate and terrifying terms. It’s terrifying and awe-inspiring simultaneously. I do want to know when we’ll get our Shipstones or ‘freshers, however, because they would be really cool.
On a side note, I’d also forgotten how Heinlein’s prose is without ever becoming workmanlike. And I also had forgotten how many of his phrases are embedded have been embedded in my head for so long that they feel like my own inventions. And I’d also forgotten how much I’d love to be Friday herself, despite my inability to kick-ass and hide things in my navel. I digress…
The other two totemic books that I’ve carried now for at least two decades prove that at one time I did like fantasy. We all must cop to our secret shames in order to make peace with them. I always have a copy of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time stashed in my bookshelf. While I know that Juster’s whimsy and L’Engle’s heart aren’t shields that can stop reality, it’s nice to believe that they can, if only temporarily. I’d carry them with me at all times, if I could, like a St. Christopher medal or a rabbit’s foot. Fear of mocking, however, holds me back.
Still, I wouldn’t run into a burning building to save my personal copies of any of these objects of comfort. The magic isn’t in the specific pages, but in my memory of them. To descend into sappy metaphors, they are like an invisible blankie, with me at all times, lodged in my head. But if my hard copies disappeared tomorrow, I’d have to replace them as soon as I had a place to keep them. There is comfort in the knowledge that I can read a page or 300 whenever my need for security becomes too great to be managed by more traditional means, like yoga and liquor. Lately, I’ve been curling up with them quite a bit. I know that soon it’ll be time to rejoin the literary world. My bookcase is already full of new worlds and their pull grows stronger every day. As long as the weather holds, I will leave the familiar back on the shelf. But not yet.