Bibliophile Essay Contest – Entrant #2

From Lahana Shaw

How Books Saved My Life

When I was a little girl, my parents dropped me off at the downtown library of our small northern California town often. They treated the place like a babysitter, but I didn’t mind one bit. It was heaven to sit on the floor of the children’s section, spending many happy hours surrounded by books. Age ten finds me living in Germany, having been born there, but emigrating with my German mother, and my American Army father to the U.S. as a toddler. I visit my grandparents the summer I am six, but haven’t been there since. German schools have high expectations and standards, and I’m having to learn to read and write in German as well as keep up on my other studies. I develop a variety of nervous habits, picking at my lips and twisting my long hair into tangles, somehow the behaviors calm me. Books in English are hard to come by, but aren’t as laborious for me as German ones, and so I start nabbing my mother’s books when she is done with them. I read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and I become brave and feisty like Scout, the new-found confidence helping me to cope with so many new things. My father is now a stranger to me, and living in another country. In my head my real father is Atticus Finch, kind, just and patient. I read the book three times in a row, and I still have that ratty, red mass market paperback in a Ziploc bag. I have few relics of my childhood, but this volume has followed me on many, many moves. In my teenage years, our home in the U.S. is filled with darkness and despair, despite our family being intact again. My father’s mental illness, and his drug and alcohol abuse color my world. The last four years have been a blur of moving across the ocean three times, each time when the schoolyear has long since started. Sometimes I think in German, sometimes I think in English. My sister keeps her sadness at bay with needles and drugs. I quell my fear and pain by filling my world with literary characters and poetry. I am never alone, and I am never without a book. Though I’m moody and angry, I know that I am not all bad, that all of us are a mixture of good and evil, and that my soul can still be redeemed, just like Cal’s in Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.” Today, I am grateful and pleased that I can make a modest living handling books, talking about books, hunting for books, and selling books. I cannot imagine a more satisfying profession for myself. I look forward to the coming years, knowing that the quest for knowledge will never end, and that my beloved friends and family are waiting for me on the bookshelf any time I need them. Once again I am happily surrounded by books.

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