I have been haunted most of my life by the memory of a book I read once when I was very young. It was most likely a library book, because it certainly wasn’t part of my life for very long, but in spite of its short stay, it made a lasting impression on me. Of course I can’t remember the title or anything concrete about it. If I could recall even a word of the title I’m sure I would have tracked it down long ago. No, the impression I have of the book is much more vague. All I can recall is an image of lovebirds in a cage, of a pavilion in a garden with fountains and marble steps, and haunting, bittersweet strains of music I can’t quite hear. There also seems to have been something about olden times and rustling silk and patient love waiting in hope, even if that hope is in vain. The image of the birds is the most vivid of this watery memory. That, and the feeling of old times gone. Over the years I have tried again and again to recall more than this, but if I try too hard, the memory slips away and I don’t know if I am inventing details or if I am really remembering a snatch of phrase or fragment of a passage. Even as I think about it I seem to recall something about a window. I’ll leave it at that.
Losing that book has colored my life somehow. In part it may have been the wispy memory of those lovebirds in a cage that led me to become a librarian in the first place. Or maybe not. Whatever the reason, I seem to be always on the lookout for a treasure of one kind or another. Maybe it’s not really that particular book I’m seeking anymore but something less substantial, the purpose of my life, maybe. I do know that I always have the hope that a new book, a new person in my life, a new bend in the road may hold a clue or a key I can use to finally comprehend life’s elusive meaning.
And then last week I found it. I really did! Just when I arrived at a spot where I felt maybe I didn’t need to ask the unanswerable question about the purpose of life anymore, I found it. Not the answer, no, the long-lost book! In December I was listening to the radio and heard Daniel Pinkwater talking about an old favorite book that had been reissued by the New York Review company. That book, The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber, is one I have loved for years and years. I grew up with its clever words and beautiful fairy tale, and I’ve read it more times than I can count—enough that the words resonate inside of me and I know when my favorite lines are coming. So I looked up the New York Review Children’s Collection and ordered one of almost all of the children’s books for the Marshall Public Library. Two were books we already had, but they were so dog-eared and well-used that I knew a brand new book with a clean cover and crisp pages would be much more tantalizing for children to choose. Then last week the stack of books arrived, and as usual I leafed through each of them and set aside a few to take home and read word by word.
I remember it was early in the morning. I had a library conference to attend so I came extra early to make a head start on the day. I took the first book off the pile and opened it to a page a little past the middle. I looked, then looked again. The story I had turned to was short, only about three pages long, but it was MY STORY, the one about the lovebirds! As I read it, I didn’t find the marble steps or the fountains or the striped pavilions (those might be waiting in different stories), but as I reread the words the memories and enchantment came flooding back. I hadn’t really forgotten after all, the story had been in my heart all along. Only then did I look to see which book of the many on my desk I had picked up. It was Eleanor Farjeon’s The Little Bookroom, one of the books I had reordered because the library’s original copy had been loved almost to pieces.
I’m still trying to figure out that experience. Was it just a coincidence? Or was there something deeper? All I know is that I thought the book was gone forever. But it was really not five steps from my desk these past years. Maybe many things are like that, waiting patiently until we stumble across them and realize they have been there all along. Is my life different now that I found the long-lost book? Probably not. But I hope I will have a little more faith that what I seek really does exist. If I look carefully enough I will find it, waiting patiently to be rediscovered. And maybe like the words of my story it will flow into me with the familiarity of an old friend’s voice or slip into my life like my feet into a comfortable pair of shoes. I do know I won’t stop looking, because after all, nothing is ever really lost.