On Breakdowns and Books

Penn Ave in Pittsburgh Photo by Author

In the autumn of 2017, I fell into myself. Humbly returning to my center with a flag of defeat dragging behind me like a party streamer after a summer storm. Collapse was inevitable. I had sought myself — and a home — all over the globe and in others for far too long. I became acutely aware of how much of myself I had pinned to the scaffolding of others as it came crumbling down. I sat for days in a borrowed meditation chair; I held a book in my hands again. The book was not going anywhere, and neither was I.

Books become my final refuge just as they had always been my original home. Inviting me to peruse their pages and discover their hidden mysteries, they now welcomed my tired heart, offering distraction, rejuvenation, recreation, and assurances that all would be well. But also, adventures, even love stories — these ones with happy endings.

My love of books is likely congenital. My father owns over one ton of books. This is a known fact because when we moved across the country after I finished high school, we packed them into hundreds of brown cardboard boxes and loaded them onto three pallets to be weighed and shipped. I managed to avoid the book-collecting bug however, I staved it off for years.

My desire for mobility and freedom to roam about the cabin of the world is as primal as my need for air. Yes, there were books that I dragged around time zones with me like that one on Constantine the Great and the history of the Christian church, but I never found a way to read amidst the busyness of travel. From a farm in rural Argentina to the beaches of Bali and the steppes of Central Asia, I consumed books haphazardly in between flights. So much time and energy go into finding a place to rest while traveling, and I get nauseous reading on moving vehicles. I took to reading on my small old iPhone, but books deserve so much more than that. They have a dignity that cannot be appropriately acknowledged on the small screen.

Throughout my adventures, I dated men who reenacted the ritual of book collecting. As I caressed their books, I thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t own them… or did I? In reality, I yearned for a place to call my own so that I could decorate it in that most classic of design styles: literary chic. My bookshelves would be brimming with reflections of my fabulous inner and outer journeys. The lure of that solid, familiar, tangible, haptic tome beckoned. Something to return to — a book to keep me company — where these loves had failed.

Eventually, my small screen’s digital glow from reading gave way to the lamentable habit of swiping left, right, and center. Long sentences disappeared, replaced by emojis and split-second decisions based on unconscious attitudes, primal urges, and unclear dreams. It was the ultimate virtual reality trap. After one particularly disappointing virtual exchange, I decided it was time to introduce radical minimalism and delete the apps, the endlessness of clicks and likes and comments, and matches all promising happily ever after. Once that constant oozing light was stilled, the quiet was deafening. Like Roadrunner right after he’s zoomed straight off the cliff — only when he realizes there is no ground beneath him does gravity take hold.

I landed on that chair in Pittsburgh, in a neighborhood called Friendship, licking the wounds of my past and then my finger to turn a real, paper page. The stillness, at first threatening, gave way to a sort of healing resignation. I had been forced to let go of that pernicious FOMO of my generation and pause for a spell. Honesty, I could barely handle getting out of bed in the morning. I rested for hours staring out the window, watching the seasons change.

In childhood, I’d spent countless hours reading under the covers at night with a flashlight, necessitating my need for glasses by the fifth grade. I’d lie sideways on the living room couch for an entire Saturday reading the likes of Judy Blume, Madeleine L’Engle, and Gertrude Chandler Warner’s Box Car Children. Women writing about the terrifying and simultaneous awesomeness of children and youth having adventures in the scary world of adults. These books inspired me to have my own big experiences someday, but now I know that a book opens doors to a world that even an airplane ride to a far-off land cannot access.

Throughout my tumultuous peripatetic pre-Pittsburgh life, I learned to let go of many homes that I briefly occupied; and learned to let go of books. Trying to keep that famous philosophy in mind that attachment is the cause of all suffering when the time is right, I sell a book or give it away and move on to the next. But I have always kept just a few boxes in someone’s attic or basement of what I considered the seed of my future bookshelf. I treat books kindly and with care, but I never forget that the physical possessions we own are there to serve us and not the other way around.

I have been attached to so much in my life. The pain of loss never changes; I just learn to recover better. The hope of a budding romance dashed; the promise of a new job or a fresh start in a new place. Those favorite black leather gloves with red trim that I left on the tram in Berlin one winter, ah how I miss them! This process of learning to find the balance between opening the book or experience and letting it affect me, and then letting it go again is what I do. I don’t always do it well, but it is a familiar process.

My own wrinkle in time, my “recalibration period,” as I now refer to it, showed me how inseparable the comfort of home is from book-reading. In that year in Pittsburgh — also known as Litsburgh for its lively literary scene — I slowly regained the ability to venture out more than just a few blocks from my dwelling. I graduated to taking the bus, then a car, and then a plane again.

But home was my literary meditation chair. I finally finished the four-pound book about Constantine the Great and a few more. Despite my burnout, this time, I sensed that even if I stayed in one place and called it home for a time, I would still be free to see more of the world. But with less frantic urgency.

It is certainly easier to read ensconced in a designated comfy chair with your reading material readily available on nearby shelves. It is unlikely that I will ever have a home with a vast library like the one I grew up with. My nomadism is a hard habit to break, and that foray into minimalism showed me the value of quality over quantity in both virtual and material worlds.

The good news is that I can still bring a book on my now much less frequent trips. I recently broke down and finally bought an eReader; it sits collecting dust in the corner. I still prefer to lug those hard and softcovers around with me. Just in case. Just for good measure. Just to bring some home with me, wherever I wander.

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A version of this essay originally published in Wanderlust, a Travel Journal

I am interested in paradoxes, contradictions, people, culture, and being human. I write and translate DE-EN | MFA student Non-Fiction. www.bettinahindes.com

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