Ann Charters received her B.A. at Berkeley and her Ph.D. at Columbia. A professor of English at the University of Connecticut, she is also the editor of Selected Letters of Jack Kerouac and The Portable Beat Reader.
"Ann Charters has an acute sense of which stories work most effectively in the classroom, and she knows that writers, not editors, have the most interesting and useful things to say about the making and the meaning of fiction."
My parents’ drafty two-story house in Ohio contains approximately forty-three gazillion books. At least one bookshelf stands in every room — hardcovers lined neatly along family room built-ins, rows of children’s classics in the attic. Glossy art books squat on top of sofa tables; literary journals rest facedown on bathroom counters. Nightstands, toilet tanks, the pool table — everything is a bookshelf. An antique hutch in an upstairs bedroom comes particularly to mind, a piece of furniture so overloaded with my mother’s ecology textbooks that it looks about to give out, as if to say: C’mon. No more.
Even the unfinished half of my parents’ basement — concrete-floored, hairy with cobwebs, fringed with venerable toys and raccoon traps and dusty brewing supplies — carries books in its corners. And it was there, one afternoon when I was twenty-two, home from a year in Colorado working as a grill cook, that I stood in front of an old file cabinet surveying the titles stacked on top.
These were my brother’s retired college books: Norton poetry anthologies; Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man; The Harper American Literature, Volume 2. I was leaving for New Zealand in the morning, to live out of a backpack for seven months, and I had traveled overseas enough by then to know the importance of choosing the right book. The last thing you want is to find yourself five miles above the Pacific, fifteen hours left in your flight, with “Soaring, shivering, Candace inquiringly asked . . .” in your lap.
In the center of the stack a teal spine about three inches high drew my eye. The thickest of the lot. The Story and Its Writer.
I lifted the book down. Sixteen hundred onionskin pages, one hundred and fifteen short stories, three pounds. The stories were arranged alphabetically by their writers: Chinua Achebe to Richard Wright. Such a book would be absurd for backpacking.
And yet, as I held it, the book slipped open to an early page as if under its own power. I read, “Upon the half decayed veranda of a small frame house that stood near the edge of a ravine near the town of Winesburg, Ohio, a fat little old man walked nervously up and down.”
Sherwood Anderson. One sentence. It was enough. I lugged the book upstairs and wedged it into my carry-on.
I landed in Auckland and boarded a ferry and decided to hike the circumference of Great Barrier Island, a remote, windswept protuberance of bays and hills in the Hauraki Gulf. I bought potatoes, four sleeves of Chips Ahoy, a can of tuna, two pounds of noodles, and a can with a picture of a tomato on it that said Tomato Sauce. I bought white kitchen trash bags: one to keep my sleeping bag dry, another inside which to sheath the three-pound brick of The Story and Its Writer.
For my first seventy-two hours on that island it rained every minute. On my third night — I hadn’t seen another human being in two days — a storm came in and my tent started thrashing about as if large men had ahold of each corner and were trying to shred it. Sheep were groaning nearby, and my sleeping bag was flooding, and I wanted to go home.
I leaned into the little shuddering tent vestibule and got my stove lit. I started boiling noodles. I carefully cut open my can of tomato sauce, anticipating spaghetti. I dipped my finger in. It was ketchup.
I almost started crying. Instead I switched on my flashlight and opened The Story and Its Writer. For no reason I could articulate, I began with “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” by Alice Munro.
By the second paragraph the tent had disappeared. The storm had disappeared. I had disappeared. I had become a little girl, my father was a salesman for Walker Brothers, and we were driving through the Canadian night, little bottles in crates clinking softly in the backseat.
Next I flipped to Italo Calvino’s “The Distance of the Moon.” Now I was clambering up a ladder onto the moon. The last page left me smiling and awed and misty: “I imagine I can see her, her or something of her, but only her, in a hundred, a thousand different vistas, she who makes the Moon the Moon. . . .”
Then I lost myself in the menacing, half-drunk suburbia of Raymond Carver. Then Isak Dinesen’s “The Blue Jar.” The line, “When I am dead you will cut out my heart and lay it in the blue jar” is still underlined — underlined by a younger, wetter, braver version of me — as I sit here in Idaho with the book almost twenty years later, warm and dry, no ketchup in sight. I press my nose to the page: I smell paper, mud, memory.
When I eventually stopped reading that night, and washed back into myself, I had eaten two entire sleeves of Chips Ahoy. The rain had stopped. I unzipped the tent door and stepped back onto Great Barrier Island. The stars were violently bright, electric-blue. The Milky Way was stretched south to north. Orion was upside down.
For seven months I carried The Story and Its Writer through New Zealand. I hiked my way from the tip of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island and Nadine Gordimer came with me; Flannery O’Connor came with me; Tim O’Brien came with me. On a sheep farm in Timaru, John Steinbeck whispered, “The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world.” In a hostel in Queenstown, Joyce whispered, “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe.” In a climber’s hut beneath the summit of Mount Tongariro, John Cheever whispered, “Is forgetfulness some part of the mysteriousness of life?”
Maybe we build the stories we love into ourselves. Maybe we digest stories. When we eat a pork chop, we break up its cellular constituents, its proteins, its fats, and we absorb as much of the meat as we can into our bodies. We become part pig. Eat an artichoke, become part artichoke. Maybe the same thing is true for what we read. Our eyes walk tightropes of sentences, our minds assemble images and sensations, our hearts find connections with other hearts. A good book becomes part of who we are, perhaps as significant a part of us as our memories. A good book flashes around inside, endlessly reflecting. Its shapes, its people, its places become our shapes, our people, our places.
We take in a story. We metabolize it. We incorporate it.
Imagine you could draw a map of all the experiences you’ve had in your life, and superimpose it over a map of all the books you’ve read in your life. Here you worried your daughter was failing out of school, here you gave a nun a stick of chewing gum, here you saw a man dressed as a referee weeping in a Honda Accord. And here a boy in an egg-blue suit handed you an ornate invitation to a party at Jay Gatsby’s, here you met the harpooner Queequeg at the Spouter Inn, here you floated a stretch of the Mississippi with a slave named Jim. Here you crouched in a tent in the rain and read Isak Dinesen’s “The Blue Jar” for the very first time.
Everything would be intertwined; everything would transubstantiate. There would be your life, your memories, your loves and doubts. Then there would be the faint tracery of the lives of your parents, your grandparents, their parents. Then there would be your dreams. And then there would be all the books you have ever read.
I spilled hot chocolate on The Story and Its Writer. I dropped a corner of it in a river. I brought it back across the Pacific and went to graduate school and used it to write literature essays and then to fumble through my first efforts as a teacher. And now I have my own house, my own dozen bookshelves, and the big teal spine of The Story and Its Writer sits on one behind my desk as if waiting to fall open again. If I look at it long enough it seems to pulse.
We are all mapmakers: We embed our memories everywhere, inscribing a private and intensely complicated latticework across the landscape. We plant root structures of smells and textures in the apartments of lovers and the station wagons of friends and in the backyards of our parents. But we are readers, too. And through stories we manage to live in multiple places, lead multiple lives. Through stories we rehearse empathy; through stories we live the emotional lives of other people — people in the future, people in the sixteenth century, people living in Pakistan right now. We fall, we drift, we lose ourselves in other selves.
What I have learned and relearned all my life, what I learned growing up in a house overspilling with books, what The Story and Its Writer taught me, what I relearned last night reading Harry Potter to my five-year-old sons, is that if you are willing to let yourself go, to fall into the dazzle of well-made sentences, each strung lightly one after the next — “Upon the half decayed veranda of a small frame house that stood near the edge of a ravine near the town of Winesburg, Ohio, a fat little old man walked nervously up and down.” — if you live with stories, you will never be alone.
Editor’s Note: “A Universe That’s Three Inches Tall and Weighs Three Pounds” first appeared in Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book, edited by Sean Manning and with a foreword by Ray Bradbury.