I work in a long narrow two-story government building.*
The cubicle is sometimes prison cell, sometimes cloister, like the mind. Spinal compression, unlike 401k plans, compounds faithfully. When the back groans too much I get up and take my walk. I walk from one end of the building to the other with purpose.
The corridors are adorned with stylish prints intended to motivate the workforce: Commitment – Determination Is Often the First Chapter in the Book of Excellence.
Sometimes I peer too closely at things, to the point of tedium. For example, why isn’t Commitment the first chapter in the Book of Excellence? I want to know. And if Determination “is often” the first chapter, what is the first chapter when it isn’t?
Who writes this stuff? Maybe I’m just tired of sculpted figures scaling impossible cliffs against stunning blue skies. It’s not what I want to see every day. I would prefer graffiti on these walls to pretty people and mindless slogans. I would prefer inscrutable Pollock and outrageous Dali, even chicken scrawl, anything, really. Just not this.
Once a day I stop in the kitchen upstairs, at the other end, where the cleaning ladies hang their jackets and bags. Not to gab with the cleaning ladies, who are pleasant enough. But to visit the books.
Before I was assigned to Building Y, someone – a book being – imagined a shelter for unwanted books and made it happen. A white plastic table shoved up against the wall between a beaten-down refrigerator and a sputtering microwave is where he-she-it placed the first of many. I wish I knew he-she-it, I want us to be friends.
Others have followed suit, bringing the no-longer-wanted, the overstayed-their-welcome, the misbegotten, the presumably dated, dull, irrelevant, abused, and disheveled tomes and pressed them together in rows and piles.
Once a day I walk the length of Building Y seeking the overlooked, the misunderstood, the silenced. I climb the stairs and turn left. With a passing glance through the kitchen glass door I determine the presence of new spines, colors and densities. I enter the unlikely sanctuary seeking communion. My name is R, I whisper, but I make no promises.
I scan the group. One by one they whisper back their names. One or two intrigue me and finally my hands move. I lift and hold and turn, evaluate the weight and bulk, the scent, texture and colors. Who made you? Anyone I know? I turn the pages, listen to the voices.
But no, not today. I walk away disappointed and newly vexed by the smug inanities shimmering on the walls.
Challenge – Always set the trail, never follow the path. Always? Never?
There is no right way, only your way. Hmm, what a curious and ironic statement. How did those words end up on the wall of a military facility?
Gray weeks pass like numbed commuters. But recently someone’s left an intriguing collection, and I’m glad to rescue one at a time. Don’t be greedy, I hear, so I take only one, and the next day another, and so on, until all the books that quiver with life are saved from the garbage bin.
Despite enjoying the works of Zola, Hardy and Dreiser, I don’t subscribe to determinism. But I’m no sentimentalist either. I know a bad book when I sniff one. It smells finished and dead and can’t ever become anything else.
But a good book, conceived before its first word, goes on living after its last. There’s a pulsing regenerative continuity about it that can’t be stanched. It’s propelled by remembrance, lingering impressions, and unanswered questions. It flows with a restless energy from writer to reader, to new interpretive experience, to a freshness of insight and outlook that prevails against tired deceptions and the rule of indifference.
If I were to frame my two-cents’ worth and hang it on a government building wall, it might be something like this: Read books that jolt the heart and ignite the imagination, and if you are so compelled, write one.
* Full disclosure: I did work in a narrow two-story government building during part of nearly thirty years as a technical writer in support of US Army communications systems and US Naval Air. Thirty long years that went by in a blink, actually. But I didn’t just talk to books — I talked with people too, met and worked with lots of good men and women along the way, raised a family, negotiated life’s tempests, continue meeting, raising, negotiating…
The kitchen adventure ended when Fort Monmouth was shut down in response to a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission recommendation. Everything else remains unfinished.