Books, Books, and More Books

Last week, I did something I haven’t done since early 2020.

I went inside my public library.

During the pandemic, I was lucky enough to still be checking out books from my library, but through a system of reserving specific titles and arranging a day and time to pick them up.

But the library is open again. Open for leisurely browsing. For stocking up. For being in awe of the sheer number of books I have yet to read.

I first thought I’d go into the library with no plans. Just me, my library card, and my empty tote bag. And I’d stroll among the shelves, picking up books, reading the summaries on the back cover, and bringing home as many books as I wanted. (Or as many as I could carry in my bag.)

But then that thought made me feel a bit overwhelmed. There is such a thing as too much choice. 

So I handled the visit to the library the same way I handle my grocery shopping.

It’s considered foolish to grocery shop on an empty stomach. I thought the same rule should apply to me in a library. I was hungry for books. For the freedom to walk in and pick up books because something — a cover, a title — caught my eye. 

So I made a list.

I went online and accessed the library’s catalog. And wrote down the call numbers for books that had been on my “want-to-read” list. I limited myself to eight books. (I’m not sure how I settled on eight, except that ten seemed too many, and eight seemed close enough to ten.)

I went to the library and made my way around the shelves, gathering my books, until my bag was heavier than I expected (I didn’t realize one book was a hardcover and over 400 pages long). 

And I came home happy. With eight books including memoir (Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood), poetry (Mary Oliver’s Devotions), and fiction (Linda Holmes’s Evvie Drake Starts Over) to name a few.

Libraries are open again, and in case you couldn’t tell, I was smiling under my mask.

(The public library still requires patrons to wear masks in consideration of the younger readers who don’t yet have access to a vaccine.)

Jewels from Cast Away: Poems for Our Time

I admit I’m not a big poetry reader. But there was something about Naomi Shihab Nye’s collection Cast Away: Poems for Our Time that called to me.

How wonderful it is to read the reminder that everyone can do something to help our planet. Everyone has the ability to go out into the world, and at the very least, pick up trash. And everywhere we look, there are stories to be found. 

This week I’d like to share just a few of the jewels in this collection:

From “Three Wet Report Cards on Camden Street”:

“feeling great sadness

for the hard work of teachers

filling in so many little boxes

dreary evaluating and judging

when what teachers love best

is that spark of discovery

that great question

the shy person

finally speaking from the stage”

From “Central School”:

“On top of the can right there, a hand-lettered dictionary,

flipped open to the L page, and every

most important word

of life lined up handwritten — Love, Learn, Lose, Laugh

and thrown away. How could anyone

throw that away? A neat little dictionary —

I took it. Thought about second grade being the 

best grade, how the world opened wide in second grade,

and we stood in dignity reciting poems to one another,

Loving Language, and our teacher Mrs. Lane told us,

Don’t worry if you make a mistake. We had Smile Day.”

And my favorite, from “Nothing”:

“Nothing a child

ever does

is trash.

It is

practice.”

At a Fork in the Road

Because April is National Poetry Month, I have a story I’d like to share with you this week.

A few months ago, my son and his fifth grade class were instructed to memorize Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.”

Granted, it’s a famous poem with an important message.  But why did my son need to memorize it?  And in the fifth grade?  (I don’t think I read it until high school).  His teacher never explained the reason(s) behind her assignment or why this particular poem was chosen.

I worked with Ryan, as he learned the poem line-by-line.  I tried to take it a step further, talking to him about the poem and asking him questions his teacher wasn’t asking at school.  

“What does it mean to you?”  

“What do you think the poet is saying?”

We had a discussion about the poem and poetry in general – that, like many types of art, there isn’t always just one way to look at, read, or interpret a piece of art.

Ryan wasn’t overly impressed.  The poem became a chore.

And months later, his teacher must have forgotten about it, because Ryan’s class never was asked to recite the poem.

I fear that an experience like this may turn Ryan off from poetry.  Though I hope not.  These early experiences with art really do have so much power and influence over our later choices and our later opinions about what we like and don’t like, what we’re good at, and what we think we’re not-so-good at.

When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, my classroom teacher painted over one of my watercolors-in-progress, and after that, I never wanted to take an art class.  In fact, I never wanted to draw or paint again.  (To read more about it, click here and read my personal essay “Too often, teachers extinguish a student’s spark” that was published in the Christian Science Monitor back in 2004.) 

For now, Ryan and I talk about poetry in terms of song lyrics.  It’s fun and enjoyable and an organic way to learn – the way all learning can be.

 

In Praise of Poetry

The latest book in my “just read” pile is Jill Bialosky’s memoir Poetry Will Save Your Life.

I’m not a huge fan of poetry; a poem either speaks to me or it doesn’t, though I do have a (small) number of poems that touch my soul.  And there were several things I liked about this book that I wanted to share with you this week.

From a writer’s perspective, I thought the structure was so original.  The author shares a moment of time, a memory, an anecdote and then included a relevant poem.

From a book lover’s perspective, I thought the cover was beautiful (see the picture above) as were the front and end pages (see the picture below).

From a reader’s perspective, here are some of the passages I tagged as I read:

“A poem’s meaning alters by the associations, insights, and experience we bring to it.  A poem can do many things at once.  Like “The Road Not Taken,” it can challenge the reader intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally.  It can validate our experiences or cause us to question our beliefs.”

“Surely this is one of the reasons poetry enriches us.  A poem links us to a universe at once intimate and communal.  Poets and artists work in solitude and by intuition.  They have the same mission: to capture and fathom the reality beyond appearances, the world invisible to the eye.”

“I realize that through the artfulness of poetic form, one can trap experience and make it palpable to a reader.  A poem might be about what hurts, and most illuminating, the subject might be drawn from one’s own life.  A poem could be both personal and communal and save a person from the dark shadow of shame.”

“Poems often begin from a question, or a needling of something disturbing or provoking, sometimes even from ignorance.  From there a poet takes elements, either an image, a particular scene or landscape, a memory, maybe only an expression – and appeals to her unconscious, her place of unknowing in hopes that as words, phrases, and fragments take shape, like beads on a string, something original and exciting might evolve.”

Readers, what are your favorite poems?  Feel free to share in the comments section!