Finding Comfort in Books

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Hansel and Gretel illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1909 (public domain)

During this extended period of self-isolation and increased anxiety, we all find comfort in different ways: gardening, hiking, baking, meditation, or virtual social gatherings. I, like many others, find solace in books and reading. Billy Collins celebrates this special kind of comfort in his 1988 poem “Books,” observing “all of us reading ourselves away from ourselves” (l. 23) as we find in books a welcome escape from the scary and claustrophobic present. 

Collins, a professor at the City University of New York, recounts personal experience in first person, unrhymed free verse, an informal style in which the poet and speaker of the poem are closely linked. Walking on the deserted campus in April, he hears the library “humming in the night,” commending it as the campus’s “heart.” This introduces the magnificent metaphor of the library as “an immense choir of authors” whose voices speak from within their books to create “a gigantic chord of language.” The authors, still living through their books, are each “stitched into his own private coat”—the book’s binding—and are “muttering” aloud in the night to those, like the poet, who listen closely. What a memorable image! This underscores why we always discuss literature in the present tense: because authors live forever through their works. 

This almost mystical experience inaugurates a chain of reflections and memories in the poet about readers and reading. He first imagines the effects on a reader’s brain—from bloody suicides to intellectual formulas—culminating in another marvelous metaphor as a book’s paragraphs are compared to the many rooms of a large house that the reader is exploring. He aptly describes the reader as “a man in two worlds” (l.10)—the humdrum present and the enchanted world of the story. The library’s imagined humming recalls to the poet the many ways that reading and books have enriched his life, from his mother’s reading to him as a child to his visiting bookstores and building bookcases while in college. Each stanza begins with a different sense observation—“I hear,” “I see,” “I watch,”—including that sixth sense, imagination, with “I picture.” In the fifth stanza, he broadens his perspective to observe that all readers are “straining in circles of light to find more light”—that is, the enlightenment of knowledge that we find as our reading lamps illuminate the pages of a book. 

The poem features several literary allusions to classic literature, creating a kind of library within the lines of the poem itself. Specific authors who “mutter” from the library’s shelves in l. 5 include Giovanni Pontano (1426–1503), an Italian humanist after whom the Accademia Pontaniana, a leading academy of the Italian Renaissance that is still active today, was named. Alexander Pope (1688-1744), regarded as one of the greatest English poets and the foremost poet of the early eighteenth century, is best known for his satirical poetry, including The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad. Alexandre Dumas père (father) (1802-1870) was the French author of such towering classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, while his son, Alexandre Dumas fils (1824-1895), was best known for the 1848 romantic novel La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias), which was adapted into Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera La Traviata (The Fallen Woman). By referencing these notable classic writers, the poet acknowledges their enduring impact on western civilization and culture and celebrates their union across the ages through the conduit of language and books.

More allusions in the third stanza pay tribute to children’s classics (ll. 15-19), which plant the seed of inquiry in all of us at an early age. “Inside [his mother’s] voice lie the horrors of a stable ablaze” refers to the stable fire in Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel Black Beauty: the Autobiography of a Horse. I do not immediately recognize to what book the dog on “the brink of speech” belongs, but it may be Eric Knight’s 1940 novel Lassie Come Home, on which the popular films and television series were based. All of the poem’s reflections and allusions reach a crescendo in the final two stanzas of the poem, as the poet employs another magical metaphor to subtly evoke the story of Hansel and Gretel.  In this European folk tale gathered—along with Cinderella, Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast, and many more—by the Brothers Grimm and published in 1812, a wicked stepmother abandons her two children in the forest because she can no longer afford to feed them, and they use their wits to barely escape being eaten by a witch. 

First, the white page of the book—a symbolic, universal book—becomes the field of snow through which we, along with Hansel and Gretel, are travelling (l. 26). Next, the line of words on the page becomes the trail of bread crumbs that Hansel left in the forest to lead him home again, as well as representing, by comparison, the quest for knowledge followed by any reader. Finally, as the story completely takes over the poem, birds eat these crumbs—as they did in the fairy tale—thus erasing our path and leaving us to construct our own meaning as we pursue the lost children (or whatever knowledge our book may contain), who we know are headed into extreme danger. At this point, we are transported into the story and follow the snowy path until we can almost hear its characters talking—in the same way that the poet heard “distant sounds” within his mother’s voice in stanza 3. We are now listening—as was the poet in the first stanza—to the voices not only of past authors, but of classic characters themselves, who also live on in our imaginations with so many lessons to teach us. As in the poster slogan, “Books Fall Open, You Fall In,” we have entered into the imaginary world of story through this brilliant poem. The world is indeed a “perilous” place, but knowledge and imagination—along with the connection to culture represented by books and libraries—may be our only salvation.

Collins, dubbed “the most popular poet in America” by Bruce Weber and others, was born in 1941 in New York City. He is known for his witty, accessible, conversational style—heralded by his use of the informal name “Billy.” Critic John Taylor declared that “Rarely has anyone written poems that appear so transparent on the surface yet become so ambiguous, thought-provoking, or simply wise once the reader has peered into the depths.” 

The recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, Collins served two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003. He was asked to write a poem commemorating the first anniversary of the fall of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. “The Names” was read in front of a special joint session of Congress held at New York City’s Federal Hall in 2002. His bestselling books include Questions about Angels (1991), Sailing Alone Around the Room (2001), The Trouble with Poetry (2005), Aimless Love (2013), and The Rain in Portugal (2016). “Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem,” explains Collins. “Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong.”  

 

Books

By Billy Collins, April, 1988

From the heart of this dark, evacuated campus
I can hear the library humming in the night.
an immense choir of authors muttering inside their books
along the unlit, alphabetical shelves,
Giovanni Pontano next to Pope, Dumas next to his son,
each one stitched into his own private coat,
together forming a low, gigantic chord of language.

I picture a figure in the act of reading,
shoes on a desk, head tilted into the wind of a book,
a man in two worlds, holding the rope of his tie
as the suicide of lovers saturates a page,
or lighting a cigarette in the middle of a theorem.
He moves from paragraph to paragraph
as if touring a house of endless, paneled rooms.

I hear the voice of my mother reading to me
from a chair facing the bed, books about horses and dogs,
and inside her voice lie other distant sounds,
the horrors of a stable ablaze in the night,
a bark that is moving toward the brink of speech.

I watch myself building bookshelves in college,
walls within walls, as rain soaks New England,
or standing in a bookstore in a trench coat.

I see all of us reading ourselves away from ourselves,
straining in circles of light to find more light
until the line of words becomes a trail of crumbs
that we follow across a page of fresh snow;

when evening is shadowing the forest,
small brown birds flutter down to consume them
and we have to listen hard to hear the voices
of the boy and his sister receding in the perilous woods.

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