vol. 4, #29,
HOW I BECAME A FAIRY GODMOTHER
When I set up a book site, the first thing I learned was that it's not a one-way street. Perfect strangers started writing to me, because they don't feel like strangers--not when the person on the other end of cyberspace loves the same books that matter most to them. They would say things like "Except for my wife and other family members who I have persuaded (pestered) to read the book, I had not heard of anyone else who had heard of I'll Trade You an Elk." Some just needed to tell me that, yes! that book touched my life, too!
I had no idea that would happen, because I hadn't yet come to understand the peculiar intimacy of the net. And even though my own life has been so deeply touched by books, I didn't realize so many people had equally personal, intimate relationships with them--after all, as far as I knew when I was growing up, people like me who spent their lives with their noses in a book were freaks.
All I thought I was doing was providing lists of good books for a class of students who needed to improve their reading. Since the best way to learn to read fluently is to get your hands on a book you simply cannot put down until you have finished every single word, I told them about unputdownable books in every flavor I knew: murder mysteries, fantasy, sports novels, thrillers, "women's books," romances, humor, and nonfiction. The one thing all the books had in common was the capacity to suck you in and keep you reading breathlessly until you found out how the story ended. For each of them, I wrote little come-ons, explanations of why you're gonna love this book.
And then I started getting e-mail. Some was from the people who wrote books I mentioned: "...just wanted you to know how nice it is for an author to see a friendly mention of their work. It helps during the lonely hours of writing."
But mostly they were from readers who wanted to find their favorite books. A man in Washington wrote me about No Dessert Until You Finish Your Mashed Potatoes, a book that shows in cartoon form what those things we mindlessly repeat to children look like from their point of view (in this case, a mound of mashed potatoes reaching up to the ceiling). He and his sister had loved this book when they were kids. His copy of it was long-gone, and he really, REALLY wanted to give it to his sister for Christmas. Did I, he asked, know any way he could get a copy of it? The book, of course, was long out of print, and in any case, it was one of those ephemeral little humor items that antiquarian book dealers don't tend to bother with, the kind of book that lives and dies as swiftly as butterflies and leaves no trace.
I told him this, but I also told him that if he sent me a real-life postal address, I would photocopy MY copy of it and send it to him, along with the address for the bookbinder we use. His next e-mail to me, addressed to "the goddess Marylaine," gave me his address, his eternal fealty, and a promise that if I ever needed any barley, he would supply it to me from his farm.
Goddess might be a bit strong, but it does appear I have become a sort of fairy godmother. I may not find happily-ever-afters for people, but I do seem to help them find something almost as important. Since I was getting so much e-mail that said, "Yes, I love that book, and it's out of print, please help me find it," I put everything I knew about How To Find Out of Print Books right out front, alongside the reading lists.
Since then, I've gotten many thank you notes from people who have followed my suggestions and at long last have been reunited with books they loved. Often those books were ones they read as children, which makes sense. It's so much easier to lose track of those books, because as kids we don't have any control of our lives; our parents efficiently take books back to the library, sometimes before we even really noticed titles and authors of the ones we loved. And of course when we were kids, we mostly didn't get to buy the books that mattered to us, but even if we did own them, well, I have heard a lot of sad stories about parents cleaning their kids' rooms and throwing their precious stuff away.
But it also makes sense that so often the books we love the most are ones from our childhood, because books show us that the world is so much bigger and brighter and more adventure-filled than the small corner of the world we're locked into--they tell us almost anything is possible, and we can be heroes. They help us make it through by showing us that the way things are is NOT the way things have to be. Or they introduce us to people who survived through what we are going through (a reader described Peter Devries' The Blood of the Lamb, the story of a child dying from leukemia, as "the only book I have ever read where I had to retreat to the bathroom to read the last chapter through tears"). Incredible how written words can evoke such overwhelming feelings.
But if some books were loved because they went to the heart of deeply private pain and self-doubt, others were loved because they were shared. One woman told me about sitting in her father's lap, as he read their favorite book out loud to her, again and again; her only regret was that she hadn't found that book again before he died. Another woman told me about the hours she and her friends had spent acting out the Edward Eager stories.
My family's collection of Oz books had been read by my grandmother to my mother, who then read them to us; they passed to my sister, who read them to her kids, and then to me. I replaced the missing pages and had the books rebound, and then read them to my own son--before I passed them back to my brother's grandchildren. The books were a delight to read aloud, full of wordplay and adventure and weird and wonderful characters like Jack Pumpkinhead, the Gnome King, and the ABC Serpent. But the sense of carrying on a family tradition was just as important to me.
Other people have written to tell me that they too remembered the guilty pleasure of reading their books under the covers by flashlight, rebelling against being forced to go to bed when Javert was still in single-minded remorseless pursuit of Jean Valjean, and Bilbo was still alone and very small inside the dragon's lair. Many people have told me of their lifelong love affairs with books, while others have admitted, half-guiltily, that they didn't much like books EXCEPT for this very special one.
Maybe any passion is the same. Perhaps people who put up web sites about model railroads or the Partridge Family or the Beatles also receive the intimate personal confidences of strangers. Or maybe books are special.
I never set out to be a fairy godmother who helps people find the books they love. It's been a lot more rewarding than what I intended to do, though.
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
I'll write columns here whenever I really want to share an idea with you and can find time to write them . If you want to be notified when a new one is up, send me an e-mail and include "My Word's Worth" in the subject line.