Do you remember the first full length chapter book you ever read? I do. It was The Hidden Staircase, number two in the Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene. My mother gave it to me as a Christmas gift, and I think I was about ten years old. I started reading that book the day she gave it to me and couldn’t put it down. I read it as I walked around the house, stepping over wrapping paper and ribbon. I read it in the bathtub, a joyful indulgence to this day. I read it until I fell asleep and picked it back up the minute I awoke. I read it straight through until I finished. That was my first torrid affair with a book, and the beginning of a lifelong habit that has brought me peace when I felt overwhelmed, and quiet when the world got too noisy. Books have been lifelong companions to me; the family that never gives me a hard time. Books have transported me to lands I will never visit, and introduced me to people I still yearn to meet. Books have taught me about food, weather, plants, addictions and loneliness. Books have taught me about anger and gentleness, love and hate, hunger and sex. Books are the thing that I love most about many of my friends. To this day, when I enter a person’s home for the first time, my eyes scan the rooms for two things; the artwork they choose as daily companions, and the books that they are reading. You can learn more about people by perusing their home for those two things than you can from hours of conversation. Books and artwork speak volumes in their silence. The absence of them speaks too. That is why I dislike electronic reading devices. They rob us of the chance to get to know someone before we have even spoken. Books are the backdrop of a person’s interests. The only thing better than a good book is a friend who loves the same book you love, or hates the same one you hate, or loves the one you hate. My friend Cecily regularly sends me text messages that contain nothing but the title of a book and the name of the author. That simple communication is one of my favorite elements of the friendship.
My first official book club developed while I was living in New York in my twenties. There were a few of us from Hammond who had moved there within the span of a few years. Some of us knew each other fairly well, some of us knew of each other, and some of us thought we remembered each other, but weren’t quite sure. Ironically, some of our mothers had even been in a book club together at approximately the same time in their lives, so we decided that New York needed a Hammond Book Club. That is how she was born, the HBC. The truth was, we probably needed each other, and the books brought us together as divine intervention.
Once a month, we would gather in each other’s apartments, scattered around the city. Some of the apartments were spacious and inviting; a Hammond living room transported to the Big A. Some of them (ok, mine) were tiny and bustling with roommates and collages of furniture left behind by former roommates. Upper East Side, Upper West Side, Mid Town, Brooklyn. We shared meals, wine, opinions and stories from home. We talked about the book of the month and argued over whether the characters were noble or spineless. Uncle Tom, Frankie, Antonia. The list of names goes on and on. Those gatherings were like getting a strong dose of Louisiana when we were sick from the lack of heat and humidity. It was marvelous, and I miss those monthly gatherings with ladies who impacted my life more than they will ever know. You see, I was the youngest of them all, therefore grateful to be given a seat at such a sophisticated table. They wrapped me up in words and settings, with a glass of wine on the side. It seems like a lifetime ago. Still, if I close my eyes I can picture the setting. There is a tray of shrimp mousse and crackers, sitting on a cocktail table, just as our mothers would have taught us. I can see Ricki tossing her head back as she laughs with gusto. I can see Laura and Kit shaking their heads at something foolish I had just said. I can see Claire listening intently to an opposing opinion, knowing she is growing inside just by listening.
Soon after the HBC began, we started inviting other women to join us. You know, yankee women. And they slid right in there adding yet another flavor to the group. Throughout those years, we attended each other’s weddings, gave parties together, went to church side by side-ok, sometimes-, and cried on each other’s shoulders…sometimes. But mostly, we loved our books together. Loving books together is a powerful bond. Trust me, it is. I miss those days and that combinations of people. Sometimes, I think about trying to get all of us together again to talk about a book but, these days, we are all scattered around the country. Sadly, it probably won’t ever happen. Still, there are times, when I pick up a new book, that I wonder what those ladies are reading. I know that they are reading something good. Or bad. Or controversial. But you can bet that they are reading something, because that piece of you just doesn’t go away.