Books tell stories.
I know what you’re thinking—Duh. But I’m not talking about the ones between their pages. I’m not talking about their own stories, the tales they tell universally to anyone who reads them. I’m talking about the stories they tell to each of us, individually. Our stories.
That’s right. Books tell us our own stories. It’s just one of their many super powers.
In the Author’s Note of A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness writes, “Stories don’t end with the writers, however many started the race.” This young adult novel tells the story of a grieving boy and a dying mother and a monster and a yew tree. But it also tells the story of two writers—Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd—connected by life and death and the stories in between. Dowd died of cancer at age forty-seven, leaving behind the notes for her next book. Ness, who’d never met her, turned those notes into a story that was part hers, part his, something new that he hopes she would have liked.
He’s right. Stories don’t end with the writers. I have a small library on the bookcases in my home– volumes of fiction, horror, young adult lit, poetry, memoirs, short stories, and reference books– but there are so many more stories stored on those shelves than you can see just by looking.
My copy of Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett not only tells a very funny story about the apocalypse, it also tells a very sweet story of a couple falling in love. When my husband and I first started dating, we read that book together, taking turns reading aloud to each other, sharing laughs and lingering looks. I loved the book—it’s hilarious and you should read it. But when you do, you’ll only get half the story the book tells to me when I look at it.
Louis Sachar’s Sixth Grade Secrets, which I read in the sixth grade and then re-read last month, was one of my favorite books as a kid, but in addition to telling the story of secret clubs and mean pranks and first crushes, it also tells the story of one of my most shameful moments. In the seventh grade, I used one of the pranks from the book on one of my best friends and made her cry. I don’t know why I did it. Maybe I was a mean kid, or maybe I just wanted to see if it would work. It did, and I have regretted it ever since. Whenever I hear people complaining about movies and TV and video games being bad influences on kids, I think of this—how I got the idea for my cruelty from a book.
[Note: Despite the fact that it brought out my bad side, Sixth Grade Secrets is still a good book, and it holds up well twenty-five years after it was written. I was particularly impressed, during my recent reading, at how “un-girly” the girls are in the story, which is to say, they are simply girls, which is to say, they are simply people, with varied styles, interests, and personalities. The generic stereotyped fashion-freak girls that inhabit some of today’s YA are nowhere to be found in Sachar’s sixth grade world.]
Personal memories aren’t the only things that add layers to books. Sometimes it’s something else, like a connection outside in the world. I remember once, many years ago, I was reading The Outsiders by the pool at my apartment (this was early in my teaching career, before I had the book almost-memorized) and the moment my eyes landed on the word “train” I heard a train whistle off in the distance. Recently, when I was listening to Angie Sage’s Queste in my car, just as the narrator read the words “wizard castle” I glanced up to see a sign for “Wizard Castle Tattoo.”
These things happen more often than you might think. When they occur, I feel like the universe is reading over my shoulder, providing sound effects and illustrations to enhance my reading experience. I appreciate it.
Then there are used books.
Used books are the best because many come with their original stories and the stories of their previous owners. You never know what unexpected tales you’ll find tucked inside a previously owned book. Bookmarks, postcards, love notes, grocery lists, phone numbers, photographs, insane ramblings in the margins—it all tells a story.
Just last Friday, I visited the wonderfully-peculiar and many-leveled Recycled Books in Denton with the wonderfully-peculiar and many-faceted Annie Neugebauer. We were sitting on the yellow shag carpeting in front of the Ray Bradbury shelf, smelling books and discussing horror magazines and the pronunciations of German last names when Annie opened a book to find this gem:
I don’t know what that book’s story is. I just know that our laughter from the floor of Recycled Books is now a part of it too.
“Stories don’t end with writers.” Patrick Ness was right. All writers really do is get the story started. Once they’re in the hands of readers, books soak up more worlds, more experiences, more meaning. Ness ends his note to the reader by saying, “Go. Run with it. Make trouble.” I look forward to the day when my own novels are out there making trouble in the world. I hope the stories my books tell (both the ones I write and the ones the readers find hidden inside) are good ones.
With that in mind, I guess I’d better get back to work on that novel draft.