Books Can Save Us

I have an abundance of riches in reading material. Stacks of both purchased and advanced reader copies of favorite or new authors stacked in towers around my house. So how to pick what to read next? What do you do? I’m a sucker for a good cover. And of course I have favorite authors who I eagerly snag from the Advanced Reader pile at work. I am always hoping to understand my beloved ghosts so am drawn to titles relating to addiction, book-love, memoirs and weird places. That’s how I picked up The Lost Chapters: Finding Renewal and Recovery One Book at a Time by Leslie Schwartz. It checks all of the above.

Leslie Schwartz is a novelist and an addict who spent 90 days in a Los Angeles County Jail for a DUI. Before starting her sentence she chose the books she wanted to read and her family sent them to her weekly. They arrived just in time – as books seem to do. Her list included a book of Mary Oliver poetry, The Woman Warrior, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Unbroken, Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart (a book that saved me more than once) and one of my all time favorites, A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

“…Ozeki showed me, that time in its clock-on-a-wall form, and story as linear, like a yardstick, is often the least truthful way to talk about or understand its passage. All stories can only be re-created by collapsing the past, the present, and the future. We are not what we do, like a resume. Jail, for all its insidious horror, its odious dehumanization, its dependence on the momentum of days, of counting along the agonizing progress of calendars facing ever forward, is really a place that embraces no time, for which there is no clear understanding of its movement. In jail, time moves backward and forward, It is without symmetry, a starfish with five arms and no central brain. We are not, it turns out, simply our crimes or our release dates. We are where we came from. We are how we change. We are what we remember, and what we don’t remember. We are the moments that pass, and also the moments that stand still. Time is not our enemy but our puppet. Memory is prophecy and what we think is real is just an illusion.”

This passage from the Lost Chapters is followed by one about addiction and finding recovery. It’s gutting and beautiful and everything I know from being on the other side – loving the addict. Neither of mine ever made it through the window.

“Forcing compliance doesn’t work. It inspires retaliation and usually still more relapse. This is why rehabs and jails don’t work. And yet, addiction itself keeps the addict enslaved, unable to want to stop. I am still in awe that I was granted that tiny window somewhere along the line and even more baffling that I slipped through it.”

I love this book. The author does not whine. She owns her shit and her privilege and shares her outrage and the injustice and failures of our system – particularly for women of color.

I’ve always adored books. Walking into a bookstore even after 21 years, I still feel the thrill of all those books! New titles! And I believe that books can really save us. I am not alone. My friend Nina was devastated after the early death of a beloved sister and found comfort, healing and JOY by reading a book a day for a year. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair.

And have you heard about this extraordinary man, wrongfully convicted as a teen? He spent 17 years in prison — and how reading saved him. Here’s his story and here’s the organization the remarkable John Bunn created A Voice 4 the Unheard – with the goal of bringing books and literacy to prisoners. Note the story of the corrupt and wrongful conviction doesn’t figure on his website. Is it books, is it reading that allowed this man to not be bitter after 17 years wrongfully imprisoned!?  He humbles me.

Forget the deserted island – these are tricky times. What books would you want in prison?

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8 Responses to Books Can Save Us

  1. Melissa Slattery says:

    Ulysses.
    Even though JJ was not a stellar man, in many ways, his mind (in Ulysses) remains mysterious wonderful and unfathomable to me. Like the Grand Canyon or the ocean or the sky. That book can entertain for a lifetime and beyond. P.S. I love your post and I’m going to read all the books and follow all the links you shared. It’s like an oasis in a desert, this post.
    Thanks!

  2. Tricia says:

    How great!! I tried and now will have to try again – especially because I’m going to be in Dun Laoghaire next weekend!

  3. I might enjoy a complete Shakespeare in prison, because I could re-read a lot and always get something new out of it. Though perhaps I would prefer something escapist (that was a prison joke) like thriller novels.

  4. jcareyreads says:

    I believe in this too. Such power. You’ve also given me a few titles to add to my own list.

  5. I love A Tale for the Time Being…great post

  6. leasyl says:

    Where the Heart Is, A Gentleman from Moscow, The Education of Little Tree, All the Light We cannot See, My Grandfather’s Blessings, Kitchen Table Wisdom. Different books for different life phases – some just for the joy, others because they are a lifeline when that is needed. A truthful, powerful post! XXOO

  7. Tricia says:

    I love this, Lea! So great to have books to add to my to be read piles.

  8. You’re a fan of A Tale for the Time Being, too! I’ll have to pick up a copy of The Lost Chapters right away — thanks for quoting that section. This is a book I will have to read.

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