Watching the NYC devastation, we tremble at what people lost. At least 20 lost their lives. Some must have lost pets. Many lost homes, perhaps as many as 100.
And then there’s the books.
Like the controversy over the marathon–to run or not to run, to devote resources or divert them–priorities get freely judged after a disaster. What you want, and why you want it, is up for grabs and questioning by everyone around you. You want to run a marathon? Are you nuts, or just selfish?
But for the people who got their families (skin and fur) out safely, it’s heartbreaking to think about what they’re thinking about, even if they won’t say so out loud for fear of judgment. From working here at the bookstore, as well as past work with the Red Cross, I’d say they’re thinking about the place on the stairs where they hung the mistletoe. They’re thinking about their baseball card collection. And they’re thinking about their books.
One of the first things people tend to replace after a house fire–once they’re safe and have a roof and food–is a beloved childhood book. We’ve given to fire victims over the years copies of The Tao of Pooh, Danny and the Dinosaur, Heidi, a couple of Louis L’Amours and countless coloring books. (We have a policy that each such person gets one free book. Then about two years ago someone donated 200 coloring books, each with one or two pages used, so we started handing them out by the armload to parents of fire families; there’s not much for kids to do in motel rooms and the Red Cross couldn’t take them because they were used.)
Fairly often people get embarrassed when they start talking about their material losses. They sigh over signed baseballs, the high school portrait of their mom, a crystal punch bowl; everyone’s got a trigger. Then they give a strangled laugh and say, “It’s just stuff. It doesn’t matter.”
In the grand scheme, everyone knows that. But the objects of our affection are surprisingly deeply embedded–and usually carry more weight than just their size. You remember a book as much for how it made you feel, where you sat when you first read it, what was happening to you at that time, as for what it said. You can replace the words, you can recreate the memories, but you can’t reinvent that your grandmother’s hands held that Fanny Farmer cookbook, and this one is a copy.
Evaluating layers of loss, seeking to restore, a need for normalcy and legacy–isn’t that all part of being human? As is trying to outrun our need to have them in the first place.
But had it gone on, would those marathoners have been able to outrun themselves?