There are doors in books. Not every door in every book opens for every person, but when they do, they can take us far outside ourselves, or deep within ourselves, or into a place that’s sideways from where we walk and stand.
A book doesn’t have to be a good book to transport us. It doesn’t have to be The Tempest, Emma, Things Fall Apart, or Beloved. When you’re young, especially, a book can be poorly written, silly even and still take you far away.
We had a Carnegie library in the town north of us, and my mom took me there every other week. She always got an armload of books. As soon as I could read I hit the Children’s Room looking for treasures.
I read a lot of children’s classics and I read a lot of junk. I didn’t care. I scarfed it all down. I didn’t love all of it – but I loved most of it.
I remember one book I checked out twice, at two difference times, weeks apart. Two boys sneak into the lab of the scientist father of one of them. They fall through a whirling portal that appears in the lab, and are transported in time. They end up… in the time of the dinosaurs! They watch two dinosaurs fight, then locate the portal and jump again, this time to a lush jungle time-frame that has, I think, really big stinging insects. Then they are in an ice age, floundering over the body of a dying mammoth. Will they survive? Will they get home?
The answers to both those questions was “Yes,” naturally. I can look back and see how derivative the book was – in fact, the portal looked a lot like the thing in The Time Tunnel, a popular TV show of the time. And dinosaurs fighting – that was in every time-travel B-movie from the 50s and 60s. There was a definite cold-war vibe to the book, and the boys engaged in what I would now call expository dialogue. The writer managed to head off one question with a technique that I still use to this day. Boy One says, “What happens if the portal appears fifty feet in the air? Or under water? What’ll we do?” Boy Two: “We better hope it doesn’t.”
Women characters? Um, no. Well, there was one, a cute little blond girl who spoke a bird-like trilling language in the jungle time-line. I didn’t care. I stitched myself right into that story, a translucent shadow following the boys. I lay awake at night imagining how I would have survived in that ice age world, or how I would have built a tree-house in jungle-time.
I loved the book about the mushroom people who come in a spaceship to ask for help. I loved Bedknobs and Broomsticks, A Wrinkle in Time, and every Andre Norton book I could get my hands on. Books took me places and I wasn’t fussy about the places. I liked places with horses best, of course, or telepathic cats or witches. But really, a man and his dog stranded in the Canadian wilderness? Building a raft to ride down a wild river? I was there. Two kids hiding out in the New York Metropolitan Museum? I was there too. A babysitter mystery in the suburbs? Count me in.
There are a lot of doors. These days, they may let me into my own national past, like Founding Brothers or The Guns of August. They may be doors into the lives of unusual people, like the Ayn Rand biography Goddess of the Market. They may be doors into the distant future or far past… or the world next door to ours.
I’m reading Quicksand by Nella Larsen right now. It was set in and published in the late 1920s. It’s a door to a life, here in the United States, that I would never have imagined someone living. For a few hours, I stitch myself into the life of Helga Crane, an outsider through no choice of hers; a woman restricted by prejudice and tradition, a rebel who rails against the injustices she faces, and has no weapons to fight it. In a weird way, it’s good to read Quicksand alongside the life of Ayn Rand, who invented herself from whole cloth once she came to the United States; who never admitted the help she accepted along the way and who never acknowledged that her whole belief system sprang directly from the grievous wounds of her childhood.
I’m always looking for the next simile, the next metaphor for a book. Books are friends; they are time machines; they are voices; they are gifts. And often, they contain doors, doors that take us to strange and distant places… and sometimes, doors that lead us home.