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December 16, 2016

Ann Hood: Still Life With Books

Posted by emily

Ann Hood is an award-winning author, most recently of the bestselling THE BOOK THAT MATTERS MOST, which we haven’t stopped raving about since it released in August. That book tells a story of love, loss and the redemptive power of books. Here, Ann continues on those themes with a touchingly personal recounting of a difficult day in her own life --- and the extraordinary way books can make your heart ache and help your heart heal.

On the hottest day of the summer this year, I stood sweating in front of my most prized possessions: a lifetime’s worth of books. They sat alphabetically, by genre, on the built-in bookshelves that lined three walls of the room my family called “the puzzle room,” so named because other than the books and some overstuffed easy chairs, the only thing in that room was a table I’d had built to hold a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. My kids and I flopped onto those chairs and read together: WHERE’S SPOT and THE VELVETEEN RABBIT; THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER and CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.

But on that hot day last August, I was not in the puzzle room to pluck a book from the shelf and curl up and read. I was there to pack all of those books for the Gentle Giants to move (with furniture and dishes and linens and all of the things I had accumulated) across town. My house, or that is to say my former house, was built in 1792. It had wide planked hardwood floors, seven fireplaces, two narrow crooked stairways, and a rabbit’s warren of 13 rooms with low ceilings and tilted floors. The chestnut beams in the attic had 18th-century axe marks on them. The house was painted King’s Red with a Palace Blue door, and the dining room walls were covered in a mural that featured our family dressed in Colonial garb in front of a bucolic Colonial Providence. Moving from that house was among one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But the marriage was over, and for reasons too dull to report here, I was the one moving with our 12-year-old daughter into a bright sunny loft in a converted factory. The loft had soaring ceilings and silver pipes everywhere and enormous windows. What it didn’t have were bookshelves, which meant that I had to part with almost half of my beloved books.

Many of those books were Christmas gifts from old loves, dear friends, my equally bookish cousin. I held each one to my nose and smelled it, a habit from childhood that I’ve never outgrown. I ran my fingers over the covers, read the flap copy. Inside, I found inscriptions: Merry Christmas, Baby Ann! And: I love you today and every day. Christmas 1983. And on Edgar Allan Poe’s COLLECTED STORIES: May the mysteries of life keep you curious and inspired! Merry Christmas!

The windows in the puzzle room were stuck shut after a recent paint job, so the air that day was stifling, stale and close. Did I need to keep three copies of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD? Or just as many of GREEN EGGS AND HAM, given as gifts 23 years ago when I gave birth to a son named Sam? Sometimes I paused just to read the opening pages again of books read long ago by Alice Adams, Mary Robison and Jill McCorkle. I could remember exactly where I was when I read every one of my books --- on my blue couch on Bleecker Street, my brass bed in Marblehead, the green rocking chair with a baby asleep on my lap in the sprawling Victorian we rented, or right in this room.

The day grew hotter. The time passed slowly. But eventually I was finished. Books packed to donate to a library. Books packed to come with me a mile and a half and a whole new life away. Those books are with me now as I write this. Two cats sleep on my feet. Christmas lights twinkle. As always, I am giving many books this Christmas, and surely I will receive more than a few. That book on your nightstand or that you are holding in your hand, that book you’ve wrapped in shiny paper and the one someone hands to you this Christmas, treasure it. What I know now, after spending a long hard hot day with all of my books, is that every one --- every book you give and get --- is a gift.