Actually, this post started out about Religion.
It was a response to the people after the presidential election who were wringing their hands and moaning that the US was no longer a Christian country (uh, read some history, folks, freedom of religion means you get to practice the faith you want, not have one religion dictated over all of us) and then again as a response to the people who had the nerve to say that if God was allowed in our schools, tragedies like the Sandy Hook massacre wouldn't have happened (no comment).
Then I saw the film version of Life of Pi, which ponders religion, at least three of them, as well as the likelihood of survival when one is forced to share a lifeboat with a 450 pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
And after seeing and re-reading Life of Pi (one of three completely perfect books, in my opinion, the others being To Kill A Mockingbird and Charlotte's Web) I got thinking about the meaning of religion, especially in regards to myself.
I've never found the things in organized religion that others do: comfort, guidance, reassurance, trust, joy. And as I wondered if there was something else in my life that might provide those things to me, I realized that yes, there is. It's been there all along. (Well, since I was 2 1/2 years old, anyway.) It's reading. Reading is my religion.
When I'm upset, I turn to books. I'm never happier than with my nose buried in a book. Books remind me of how I want to live, instruct me on how to become the kind of person I strive to be. They bring me joy, allow me to experience others' suffering, teach me about the world around me and the beings who inhabit that world.
Books are where I turn to when I need inspiration, salvation or direction.
Never have I been so despondent that a book wouldn't pull me from the depths. Ernest Hemingway said, "There is no friend as loyal as a book."
And beyond the joys of owning books, of treasuring your own collections, is the vast embarrassment of riches that is our public library system. A big building- or a small storefront or a van, it doesn't really matter- full of books that you can just take, read and then give back for others to use. What a miraculous concept.
I've always believed libraries pumped antidepressants through their air vents. A few minutes in a library and suddenly the world isn't quite as bad as it once seemed. Maybe there's a special compound that's released from the marriage of ink and paper of large groups of books. Holly Golightly got it wrong- libraries are the real Tiffany's. "The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there."
And so, in salute, here's an abbreviated list of the books I keep coming back to, that I've read and re-read a minimum of five times, most more. Books that warmed me, shook me, frightened me, enchanted me, made me happy to be on this planet, made me long for other worlds. Books that made me thoughtful, sad, and hungry. (Minus the three perfect ones I mentioned above. They are in a class of their own.)
1. A Prayer for Owen Meaney- John Irving
2. The Twenty-One Balloons- William Pene DuBois
3. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn- Betty Smith
4. Anna Karenina- Leo Tolstoy
5. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay- Michael Chabon
6. Where the Wild Things Are- Maurice Sendak
7. Outer Banks- Anne Rivers Siddons
8. Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry- Elizabeth McCracken
9. Haven: the Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees & How They Came to America- Ruth Gruber
10. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings- Maya Angelou
11. Carter Beats the Devil- Glen David Gold
12. The Final Confessions of Mabel Stark- Robert Hough
13. Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates- Tom Robbins
14. The Wind in the Willows- Kenneth Grahame
15. Ramona Quimby, Age Eight- Beverly Cleary
16. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe- Fanny Flagg
17. Fortunate Son- Lewis B. Puller, Jr.
18. No Ordinary Women: Irish Female Activists in the Revolutionary Years- Sinead McCoole
19. The Outermost House- Henry Beston
20. The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven- Sherman Alexie
21. The Prince of Tides- Pat Conroy
22. Anne of Green Gables- L.M. Montgomery
23. In the Castle of the Flynns- Michael Raleigh
24. Johnny Got His Gun- Dalton Trumbo
25. The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic- Penney, Stastny, Whitaker & Rinzler
And honorable mention: Mister Dog- the Dog Who Belonged to Himself by Margaret Wise Brown