As a child, I lived in a world of history and imagination, emanating from the mustard yellow bookcase that lined the upstairs hallway of my parents’ house. The lower shelves contained a full set of navy blue, leather-bound Encyclopaedia Britannica with gold lettering, but it was the upper shelves, full of older books that my parents had held onto from college, that fascinated me and made me a book lover. My brother and I were drawn to my dad’s Kentucky frontier history book with colorful images of Simon Kenton and Daniel Boone. We were inspired to scout around the pine trees in our front yard as if we were on the lookout for various frontier pitfalls. Because we lived out in the Kentucky countryside, far from suburbia, we used our imaginations to create new worlds, or we adapted our favorite book settings to fit the pond, creeks, and fields on our small farm. Books were what fed our minds and allowed us to see beyond our own limited reality, and the countryside enabled us to create and live, however temporarily, in whatever time or place we could conjure.
My mother’s old college literature books were much more daunting because there were no pictures at all, except for the occasional author’s portrait (usually a distinguished looking man with a formal name like Lord Byron). As a child, I became acquainted with E. E. Cummings, who looked very friendly to me because he didn’t capitalize anything, or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose A Coney Island of the Mind was alluring because the cover was a picture of a blurred amusement park. Gulliver’s Travels and Frankenstein were entire novels I attempted to read because they seemed like cool adventure stories with fascinating covers of monsters and little people. I didn’t know it then, but these books and characters were probably responsible for my becoming a college English major many years later.
So I’ve had a lifelong love affair with books and writing. I believe that Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne of Green Gables are partially responsible for the feminist I am today, and that without Anne Frank at age 12, I would never have been at all political or interested in human rights. Without Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet, and Catherine Earnshaw, I probably wouldn’t have found all-consuming love with my own equivalent to Rochester, Darcy, and Heathcliff.
I believe that when I’m at my lowest, I have only to pick up a Rilke poem or an Emerson essay and I will find some measure of reassurance and guidance. Holden Caulfield’s disdain for “phoniness” and Meursault’s strength amidst an absurd world sometimes, admittedly, keep me sane. In fact, when I am tempted to shake my head in resignation and disgust at the world, I go back to a timeless and seemingly secret society of writers, poets, and essayists, from Aristotle to Atwood, and I marvel that I belong to this tradition of thoughtful people.
I believe there is a utopia on my bookshelf, and I can be there in an instant. At a time in our culture when appearance and money seem to outweigh anything else, I believe that reading books gives me a sense of where I’ve come from, and a sense of what it means to be human. And I believe that this plethora of perspectives is among the most vital things we should strive for.
Jenni Padgett Bohle was born and raised on a small farm outside of Perryville, Kentucky, and graduated with a BA from Western Kentucky University and an MA from the University of Kentucky. Currently living in Rheine, Germany, with her husband, she has taught English to political refugees, college freshmen, high school students, and German businesspeople.
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