by Sunni Wilkinson
The summer I worked in Alaska for a helicopter tour company, I spent as much time reading as I did camping, or working for that matter. Sometimes I read in tandem with working or camping, either to pass the time at the front desk before another gaggle of tourists came in for a flight to the glaciers, or in my tent next to Lower Dewey in the evening as I reassured myself that the rustling outside the thin skin of my tent was the wind and not a lumbering, hungry bear. The book I kept with me most of the summer and took my time enjoying (at a whopping 688 pages) was Middlemarch by George Eliot. Just now, as I opened the book to see what I’d underlined, I found some fireweed I’d pressed between pages 220 and 221, a reminder that this book was good company in a wild setting.
For some reason, the books that stand out to me most carry along with them the memory not only of the plot, the characters, and the language, but the setting where I read them. Middlemarch is the name of the fictional town where the story takes place, and while I loved the setting – pre-Industrial Revolution, old English estates, country churches – it seems pertinent that I read it in a quiet place where the reaches of the sky and the ocean reflected the vastness of Eliot’s insights. It’s a story whose two main protagonists face their own limitations and those of the people they love, live through both success and bewildering failure, and (spoiler alert!) die more or less unheralded for their life’s work. But it’s apparent to the reader that both characters have been selfless – something Eliot clearly celebrates – and have made life better for others. That’s a lot to take in, and believe in, and it helps to have the company of trees and lakes and mountains while you absorb it.
Anne Patchett’s novel Bel Canto was a perfect beach read for me when I visited Hawaii for the first time several summers ago. Set in some unnamed locale deep in South America, the story shows how the lives of illustrious guests at a party (an opera singer, a Japanese businessman, diplomats) change drastically and forever when they are suddenly besieged by local terrorists. The tension of a hostage situation is never more powerful (or pertinent) than when you are baking in the hot sun and waiting for the crowd to thin so that you can wade into the water without too many people scrutinizing your cellulite.
The summer I turned 17, I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula every evening before bed. Somehow listening to the crickets or the hum of our air conditioner and knowing that a bright and cheerful sun would rise the next morning soothed me, so that I could happily remind myself that no vampires were going to lure me out of my bedroom and suck my blood. Summer is just too cheery a time for such things. If I’d read Dracula in the fall, I would have found myself sleeping on my younger brother’s floor every night. Overactive imaginations have their downside.
This summer while my kids spend hours jumping on the trampoline with the sprinklers and dripping Otter Pops all over the patio, I will be finally attacking what I have, to this point, considered a beast of a book: The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. At 841 pages, it’s behemoth, like that food chain demonstration where one seemingly large animal (say, for metaphor’s sake, Middlemarch) is devoured by an even bigger animal (Emerson). It’s so big that I am already planning to skim parts and skip around at my own whim. But there are treasures there I know I need as a mother who is desperately trying to reclaim her brain cells. One of them I’ve already located, and it sheds light on how and why we read in the first place: “Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world, and beyond its world a heaven. Know then that the world exists for you….Build therefore your own world.” Isn’t that what we do when we read, when we choose what and where and when to read, when we process stories and language in a way that becomes a part of our lives? Every time I sit down in just the right setting with just the right book, I feel like I’m building another corner of my world.
Sunni Wilkinson holds an MFA from Eastern Washington University. Her poetry has been published in Weber: The Contemporary West, Red Rock Review, Gulf Stream, Rock & Sling, and other journals and anthologies and has been nominated for two Pushcarts. She teaches at Weber State University and lives in Ogden, Utah with her husband and three young sons. She also blogs at www.allthelivelystones.blogspot.com.