"Books saved my life." Well, maybe not literally. I've never been one to give up on life completely; I'm much too stubborn for that, as well as too curious about what lies around the corner. But books have helped me over some really tough spots.
When I was in 3rd grade, and in a new school, the Scholastic Book Club saved my life with the first book I chose on my own: Child of the Silent Night, a biography of Laura Bridgman. Later, in 4th grade, our classroom teacher had a stash of books in the back of the room: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Twenty-One Balloons, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I borrowed them from her, and after school let out for the summer, I missed them so much that I asked my parents to buy them for me. I can't guess how many times I read them, but there are still parts of them, and illustrations, that I remember four decades later.
When, as an adult, I moved to two wildly different cities within two years, and felt lonely and afraid in the midst of a gloomy Southern winter, I picked up the Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries my sister had given me the year before, which I had put aside for later. There couldn't have been a series more tailor-made to cure my ills. I had long been a fan of detective fiction: I had a bunch of Encyclopedia Brown books, which I read over and over, despite knowing how each case was solved. Now here was Lord Peter, a bon vivant, but also not a stranger to the slough of despond, and (later) his lady friend, Harriet Vane, who blended the worlds of academia and detection and romance into the perfect medicine for what was ailing me.
Years later, sinking in the depths of marriage problems, I bought Whittaker Chambers' Witness. The beauty of books is that they create relationships between you and the most unlikely characters. On the surface, an ex-Soviet agent from Maryland (a Quaker) and a stay-at-home mom in Louisiana (a Catholic), one now dead and the other desparingly alive, wouldn't have much in common. But Chambers' story of his break with Communism and his rise as a writer ("In 1937, I began, like Lazarus, the impossible return") gave me hope that I might do the same, albeit in a different time and place and circumstance.
The past few years have been very busy, and promise to be busier, but I again turn to books as a respite ... from exhaustion, from loneliness, from disappointment, and sometimes just as a way to travel to a different place and meet new people. Books hold the promise to save my life, if only metaphorically, again and again.