In the movie Up in the Air (read my review here), George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, repeatedly gives a speech about how it’s better to travel light through life. If you put all your belongings in a backpack and set it on fire, you’d be free. It’s easy to see why Bingham believes this since he’s constantly avoiding putting down roots and making meaningful connections.
I’ll admit I lived that way for years and found it liberating. As a kid, I left everything behind in Viet Nam to come to the States. Dogs, relatives, friends, shoes, books—my backpack was literally empty. But instead of refilling it as soon as I could, I left it bare. I’d learned I could survive on very little so why get attached to things again? (This didn’t apply to people, just objects.) When it came to spartan living, Jack Reacher and Joe Pike had nothin’ on me.
Eventually, though, I realized I had it backwards. Since I wasn’t destroyed by my losses, it must be all right to have things as long as I had the right attitude about them. I could probably set my backpack on fire like Clooney’s Bingham if I had to—it’s just stuff, right? As a mental challenge after seeing the movie, I looked around my home, thinking, “That chair’s replaceable, I don’t need that lamp, wouldn’t die without my TV.”
Then I got to my books. Could I live without them? What did they mean to me? And that’s when it hit me some weren’t just books, they’re snapshots of specific moments in my life. I could look at one and remember exactly where I was, what I was doing and how I felt while reading it.
When I was traveling by myself a lot for work one summer, a set of Harlan Coben paperbacks kept me sane by making me laugh through 10-hour flight delays and sleep deprivation. Joan Aiken’s Nightbirds on Nantucket makes me instantly think of my friend Maria Taylor from 7th grade, who introduced me to the Wolves Chronicles featuring Dido Twite, a plucky girl whom I desperately wanted to be when I was young. Maria moved away after 7th grade but every time I look at Nightbirds on my shelf, I remember her.
Mary Higgins Clark’s While My Pretty One Sleeps reminds me of standing in line in frigid weather back in 1985 to meet the author for my virgin signing experience. I was so excited, you would’ve thought I sighted Elvis. And that first successful foray encouraged me to attend other author signings, resulting in many autographed books by my favorite writers.
My Tintin books are the first things I remember being able to read on my own (though I read them in Vietnamese), and the first time I became obsessed with a series as a child, wanting to collect every adventure. A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books have lifted me through difficult times because that bear of very little brain is actually very wise. My copy of The Red Balloon takes me back to the time in fourth grade when I fell in love with Albert Lamorisse’s classic film Le Ballon Rouge because I didn’t need to speak English in order to grasp its wordless beauty.
So, my question to you is: What are the books on your shelves snapshots of? What specific memories do they represent?
While I await your stories, I guess I won’t be lighting my backpack on fire after all.