My love of reading I owe almost wholly to Laura Ingalls and her Little House on the Prairie books. I actually remember receiving an abridged version of one of the novels sometime in kindergarten, before my reading skills had progressed to chapter books. Most Christmas presents have escaped my memory, but this little book – I think it was called Pioneer Sisters – remains fixed in my mind as the first “real” book I ever owned. Since then my library has expanded from one 80 page, large print, beginner’s book to – dare I utter the number – somewhere around 300 titles. The remarkable thing is, a glance at the cover of almost any book I own brings to the forefront of my mind’s eye a memory as unique as the story its pages contain.
The thick, large print, copy of Little Women tattered from rereading, evokes the bland color scheme of my elementary school quad and a first attempt at playwriting. Anne of Green Gables, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden recall similar classroom vigils and muffled laughter in the school library. To place a copy of The Last of the Mohicans, Emma, or Brave New World in my hands is to have salty, sandy hair and a strawberry face. All the Light We Cannot See shares its unconventional nature with the day it snowed in Temecula. The Book Thief will forever remind me of wildflowers and winding mountain roads lined with pine trees. The Picture of Dorian Gray and Between Earth and Sky came from a bookshop tucked cozily in Estes Park. To look at those is to remember a day of snow, crisp blue skies, car-sickness, and Rocky Mountain chocolate.
I could go on and recount the endless books that have accompanied me on road trips, or the books that speak of summer days and coffee shops, but that would take as many pages as I have books. There is one book, however, and its accompanying memories I feel the need to share.
War and Peace and I first became acquainted at Barnes and Noble. Strange as it may sound, it was one of those books that filled me with excitement even before I had cracked its spine. From its first sentence to its last, 1200 pages later, I knew I had stumbled upon something good. As it’s the longest novel I’ve read to date, it carries more memories with it than any other book on my shelves. To pick it up makes me that strange sixteen-year-old girl at her sister’s soccer game reading a book too large for her small hands again. It came with me on long car rides and brought me through a week and a half of tissues, chicken-noodle-soup, and beeping thermometers. The once pristine copy I own now is crinkled some, and a few pages still bear the scars of an attempt to read in the bathtub.
My favorite memories of War and Peace are of the responses its title evoked in people. To answer the question ‘what are you reading?’ with ‘War and Peace’ elicited looks of mild amusement, wild confusion, bland ignorance, or (in rare cases) a huge smile. When reading a book that produces such divided opinions, I found one is never short of conversation.
Outside of what the book itself had to say, in reading it I learned much about the kinship between books and their readers. My belief in the power of certain books to evoke nostalgia, disdain, or joy, not for what their words say, but for the memories attached to them, was chiseled in stone after reading Tolstoy’s most infamous tome. Perhaps a glance at a familiar book reminds us not only of the characters’ stories or moral lessons, but of the life we ourselves lived while reading it.