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Books to Live In

Books to live in. 

What exactly does that mean?

Think about your favorite books. The ones you keep, when others are donated to the library to make room for new reads. The ones with dog-ears because you couldn’t help but mark the passage, even though you knew you shouldn’t. The ones you’ve read so many times that the title on the broken paperback spine is almost illegible, and you can recite the dialogue by heart because you know it so well.

As a young girl, I had one of those books. It was an English translation of Le Morte d’Arthur, simplified so that even at age seven I could grasp the gist of the story. The book jacket was long gone. The corners of the grimy, brick-red cloth on the hardback cover were scuffed. The end papers were faded beyond recognition. 

I read and re-read and re-read the book again, so many times that I could narrate whole chapters from memory, and pages fell loose from their sewn bindings. In despair, my mother hid the book from me, hoping I’d choose something new to read. 

Forty-something years later, I can still remember with vivid detail the scene where Guinevere was tied to the stake, flames already licking the folds of her skirts while Lancelot bore down on the pyre on his charger, his gleaming sword glinting from the dawn sun as he swung to cut her loose from her bonds…

Oh, yeah, that was a book to live in. 

A book to live in isn’t just the careful mixture of the right ingredients–stuff like dynamic characters, memorable dialogue, and a well-paced plot–even though without those vital elements, you won’t have a book. Those ingredients make up a recipe. A recipe to be followed, surely, but, as every great chef knows, the most tantalizing dishes are those that engage multiple senses, leaving the diner satisfied yet yearning for more.

A book to live in is about the reader experience. How does the reader interact with the characters, respond to the conflict, immerse herself in the setting, and live the plot? Does her heart pound with dread when she fingers those last few pages? Does she mourn when her eyes hit those final words, The End?

And does she place the book on the shelf for her favorite things? Or the library donation pile?

The author of a book to live in has a deep and instinctive sense of the connection between the work and the reader. The book and the reader – these are two halves of a whole. The reader takes what the author wrote and fills it with life in her imagination.  If the author does it right, guides her through his world with a strong, yet gentle hand, she will imagine what he envisioned. 

A writer’s vision comes to life only if the reader can step out of her own and into the writer’s world on page one. Only if the reader feels compelled to walk in his characters’ shoes.  Only if the reader can sense the urgency of the plot. Only if the reader can hear the writer’s voice over the noise of her busy life. Only if the story stays with her long after she’s closed the book.

A book to live in is a book that brings joy or excitement or solace or hope – or all of the above. A book that reads so well you cannot put it down or forget. It’s the book that means so much to you that you want to pass it down to your kids, the book that’s so rich you’d take it on a deserted island, the book you simply cannot do without.

That is a book to live in.