I love books. I learned to read when I was very young and was reading at a post-high school level by third grade. The librarian in my hometown often called my parents to inquire whether they approved of my book choices before she allowed me to check them out as many of them were very advanced for a young child.
Books were my sanctuary and in many ways, my saviors. When there were aspects of my life that I could not yet bear to face, I would retreat into a fantasy land, built and carefully sculpted by the author. I would leave “reality” behind and would don my armor, battling with Sir Simon and William in Elizabeth Winthrop’s The Castle in the Attic. I was always drawn to books with some element of mystery, or some deeper message, and I think it was because I was trying to make sense of a senseless world. Maybe, my young mind rationalized, these books could teach me something about how to deal with this world. Maybe they were nothing more than a safe haven for a young girl.
My love for books has never died. As I write this piece, I have 15 books stacked around my desk and at least 300 more on the shelves. I will often page through old books and will remember where I was in my life the first time I read it and will marvel at how far I’ve come. There are pages with notes on them, passages underlined, words circled, highlighted, and on many, there are tear stains. There is a page in my copy of Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy (1980) that is highlighted in green. The passage reads “lifelong consideration of death enriches rather than impoverishes life. Although the physicality of death destroys man, the idea of death saves him” (p. 30). I highlighted that passage through tears as I held my infant son who had recently had a major surgery that left our family with the lifelong uncertainty of what his life would bring. It was at that moment that I surrendered to the reality of death and resolved to live a vibrant life, no matter what happened. These books that line the shelves of my home and office tell the story of my life. There is a bit of me captured in each of them and they serve a bit like time capsules, bringing some of the past into the present and someday, the future.
Yalom (1989) says:
Someday soon, perhaps in forty years, there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That’s when I will be truly dead—when I exist in no one’s memory. I thought a lot about how someone very old is the last living individual to have known some person or cluster of people. When that person dies, the whole cluster dies, too, vanishes from the living memory. I wonder who that person will be for me. Whose death will make me truly dead?
To that, I will say, as long as we have books that have passed through our hands and hearts, maybe we will achieve a bit of immortality. I imagine someday, my children will bury me and will box up my books. Maybe they will remember how important these books are to me, and they will pass them on to their children. Perhaps someday my great-grandchildren will open one of my old books, see my name written on the inside, and through the pages, will capture some of the essence of who I was while on Earth. Books are never just books…books carry within them the essence of their authors and capture some of the energy of the people who read them. Books do more than tell a story or pass on information…they provide a witness to the author and readers joy, suffering, growth and change. They carry with them the legacy of those whose hands it has passed through.
Yalom, I. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Yalom, I. (1989). Love’s executioner & other tales of psychotherapy. New York, NY: Basic Books.
— Lisa Vallejos
COMING TOMORROW: THE FUTURE OF EXISTENTIAL PSYCHOLOGY–A new weekly series featuring luminaries in the field as well as new voices speaking about where we are and where we are heading. You won’t want to miss this!