Touching books

Nearly every night, J helps herself fall asleep by poring over one of the books crammed onto her bedside table shelves. I remember E taking books to his bed as a very young child as well, his little body surrounded by hard glossy covers and bent paperbacks, sleeping as intimately with his books as he did with his plush “special friends.” Touching books matters to them both: when I pause for too long, sometimes distracted and sometimes reading ahead to myself, E will tap peremptorily on the book, as if to say, “here! In front of us! Get back to it!” J does more than tap: she smacks and punches and claws at the illustrations that deserve it. In Anne Isaac’s inventive, modern tall-tale, The Ghosts of Luckless Gulch, a band of evil, California Gold Rush-era ghost-miners captures protagonist Estrella’s beloved pets and enslaves them to exploit their supernatural abilities. Every time we reach this moment in the story, J, lover of all animals, unleashes her righteous fury by slapping and punching Dan Santat’s over-sized illustrations of the pet-snatching, ghostly miners. I often feel myself on the verge of telling her that “we don’t hit,” but I never do. We don’t hit people, it’s true, but books aren’t people.

We recently moved into a new house, one with space to finally shelve the books that have stayed packed in boxes for the past seven years. Unpacking them felt like the kind of joyful relief I imagine you’d feel if you suddenly stumbled into a party where all of your old friends who used to be so much fun were waiting around, eternally patient and still amazingly fun, for you to show up. Santat’s ghostly miners remain just as they are beneath the force of J’s angry fists, and my books were much the same. I had willed them away from me, stuffed them into smelly cardboard boxes for seven years, and nothing on their wordy faces shows anything of the strain. The face of a friend would surely show something, had I pushed them away, refused to see them or even acknowledge them for seven years–but books don’t care.

And I don’t care that J hits those glossy, evil ghost-miners. In fact–I find it a little thrilling. I get to watch her gleefully transgress a limit between our bodies and our books that I don’t cross anymore, the limit insisting that the people of our books aren’t real enough to deserve the kind of touches we reserve for lovers or enemies. J is old enough to know that Santat’s miners aren’t real, but something in her doesn’t care enough to restrain her violent caresses, and something in me cares too much about books to make her.

Now she comes home from kindergarten and delivers earnest lectures on how to care for books: never hold them by the cover alone, letting the rest flop free, and never, EVER, bend the corners of the pages to mark your spot. It makes me a little sad: maybe she’s finished crossing that line of bodily intimacy with her books, and she’ll now be content with just opening and closing, and turning pages. But then she tells us that “tape is like band-aids for books,” and informs us of her plan to become a “healer” of books–and plants and animals–when she grows up. She knows that books aren’t alive, like our leggy geraniums, or the bugs she longs to keep “warm and cozy” in our house, but she clearly sees them as equally deserving of her tender care. I’m relieved: they’re still in each others’ clutches.