“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” —L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
October has turned cold. We’ve had snow the past two days. I’d been dreading the turn of the season, the trees shaking loose their final leaves. From my porch, looking across the bare hills at night, lights shine nakedly on houses no longer obscured. The garden looks dead and dank, no more soft edges along the forest, sounds from the road not so muffled. Everything is stark. Things are what they are.
Moody Road Studios marks its one-year anniversary next month and I’ve been compelled to take stock, to really look at the bare hills and valleys. I boxed up my first returns this week, a mix of hardcovers about to come out in paperback and some flopped experiments—design books and art books and a charmingly earnest photography book called The French Cat that I felt sure would be one of my bestsellers but barely moved.
The familiar shiver of desperation creeps up my spine as I toggle between the shop’s bank account and the calendar, anticipating the holiday season. The summer crowds died down many weeks ago and I’m beginning to feel like one of those stuntmen stretched between two unhitched train cars, feet on one platform and fingertips clawing at the other.
But even if the crowds have died down, the enthusiasm has not, and I think this is what keeps me stretching. During our October reading series—featuring the incomparable Carolyn Turgeon, Kelly Braffet, and Mermer Blakeslee—the crowd was smaller but we still sold out of all three authors’ books. Last week, a friend of the store picked up five copies of Mason Currey’s creativity bible Daily Rituals to give to her kids for Christmas. People have placed orders for more books than ever this month, new titles and old, from Edwidge Dandicat’s Claire of the Sea Light to Angela Carter’s Night at the Circus and Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death and the Changing of Seasons. Just today, three separate visitors stopped by my desk after browsing to tell me how much they love bookstores and can’t imagine a world without real books. Of course, only one of those three actually made a purchase. Their words were still reassuring, even if they didn’t help me stay in business.
Ultimately, it’s this love of books that buoys me. A local sportswriter was in the bookshop the other day and we started talking about readers and nonreaders. His parents were both English teachers and he said he became an early and avid reader while his brother never did. His brother claims he just doesn’t get anything out of books. This, the sportswriter confided, was terribly sad to him. He feels bad for his brother, that he is unable to feel what he feels when reading a book.
This mirrored a fear of my own. I have two sons, both under the age of five, and being the mother of a nonreader is a very real terror. As an only child, I was a ridiculous reader, an obsessed reader. My relationships with books were visceral and intense from the beginning. I’m not sure I could relate to a child who didn’t experience reading as deeply as I did.
One night, at age eight or nine, hiding under the covers with my flashlight, I was burning through a paperback from the library, as usual. But this book was different. I was enamored with what was likely my first experience with alternating POV, and the chapters switched between an adult man and woman and a child they’d adopted, a girl around my own age. The cover was white and grown-up, a photo of a contemplative woman in profile instead of the usual illustrated covers most of the books had that I was reading at that time, and the storyline felt similarly adult.
Hiding under my quilt after lights-out, I fell into this terribly sad story about a childless couple, the gulf of loneliness between them, the distance and chill inside this little girl. She’d somehow found a bird, or a bird found her, and this tiny animal hung around with her, was her first and only friend, a kind of girlhood fantasy easily understood by other lonely girls who might be reading this story. The little girl was in the woods or on a street corner with her bird when some neighborhood kids came upon them, asking questions, intruding and pushing boundaries the way kids can. I turned the pages, my stomach in a knot, afraid for the girl, afraid for the bird. I’d read enough books by that point to sense the danger between the lines of text, understand what this band of children’s body language meant.
When one of the kids picked up a rock, I knew what was coming. The first crunch of bone and feather, the wound that rendered the bird flightless—I was horrified, but ready for it. I could feel the heat of the other kids in the circle, the fear of this small creature stuck in the middle, could hear the girl’s pulse, loud and thudding in her ears, blocking out all other sound. I probably held my breath, maybe my eyes were tearing at this point. But when the girl calmly plucked up a stone from next to her foot and launched it at the bird (no, not out of pity or a wish to end its misery), I finished reading the paragraph, dropped the book, and screamed.
I remember feeling like I’d never be able to breathe again. I ran to the den to find my parents, who were settled quietly on the couch, watching television. I can only imagine the alarm they felt—I tried to tell them what happened, but I kept choking on the words, and they assumed I must have been in some kind of physical pain. When I finally sobbed out a story about a girl stoning her bird to death, it took them a good while longer to understand that I was talking about something I’d read in a book.
“It’s just a story,” they assured me, wiping my tears and patting my back through my nightgown.
But that’s the thing. It wasn’t.
This is one of my earliest memories of grief. I would come to know loss in real life a few years later, but this is the emotional experience that drove a new rivulet into my brain, that pushed me past what I’d known was possible, into a place I hadn’t known existed. A recent study out of the New School this month and published in Science corroborated my hunch; it turns out the ability to empathize can be directly charted against the literary quality of works read. The book literally changed my brain chemistry.
I can see this clearly watching my four-year-old’s reaction to different books. Right now he is in an avenger stage, rooting for the underdog, and he is already drawn more to character-driven stories rather than plot. One book in particular, Moon Man by Tomi Ungerer, follows the main character (first shaped like a full moon) as he catches a comet to the Earth and tries to live among the humans he watches with envy from afar, only to be misunderstood and ultimately imprisoned because he is so different (he escapes from jail when he ebbs and becomes a small enough sliver to slip through the bars on the window). The illustrations are eerie and elegant and I liked the moral—just because something’s different doesn’t mean it’s scary—and the book went over well for a few nights. But then suddenly my son didn’t want to read it anymore.
Moon Man had quickly become a favorite of mine, so one night I pulled the book from its shelf, thinking he was just being recalcitrant. And to my surprise, my son started to shake. I recognized that fear immediately and quickly put the book away, asking him what he found to be so scary. He said it was too sad, that the humans were too mean to Moon Man, that he didn’t like seeing him in chains in the jail. We talked about how Moon Man eventually gets out and returns to the sky in the end, but later that night I realized he was right—it’s a terribly sad book, because the Moon Man’s dream was to come to Earth and dance with humans, who all but tortured him out of fear. He returns to the sky reluctantly and remains apathetic, wishing he were elsewhere as he hangs among the stars. It’s ultimately a story about deep loneliness and longing, something my son intuitively understood. Now, when it’s my turn to pick our books for the night, my son always says quietly, “Just not Moon Man, Mama.”
There was a loneliness that permeated my childhood that could only be filled by books. Watching my son’s love of books simmer and steep, I realize it isn’t so much that I’m afraid of not being able to relate to him if he were a nonreader, or that he wouldn’t be smart or able to succeed. Books prepared me for so much—not just grief, but romance, betrayal, heartbreak. Stories sometimes functioned as a kind of escape, but mostly I simply learned how to be from my books. Thinking of my sons as nonreaders meant they would be without that guide. They would have only themselves and other humans to rely on. And as Moon Man clearly shows us, humans aren’t always the kindest.
I can’t imagine my life without books now, but the idea of my life without books as a child is truly terrifying. I can’t prove that books made me more empathetic (though I believe they did), but I know some of those characters were as real to me as the girls on my block. When I think back, my memory has colored them with as much flesh and blood as my best friends and schoolmates. Looking at some of the shelves in my bookshop feels like looking at a kind of scrapbook or family album in many ways.
To this day I don’t know the title of the book that brought me to hysterics that night as a child. After they calmed me, my parents put me back to bed, taking my flashlight and tucking me in. In the darkness, my mother also surreptitiously took the book, slipping it back to the library the next day so that I couldn’t continue to read it, as she knew I would. For years I haunted the YA book carousels where I’d originally discovered it, hoping to find the book again. I still wonder what happened to that little girl, and the couple, and their loneliness.
I was on the playground with my sons when the first snow fell yesterday. We watched the wide dark cloud come toward us and were preparing to make a run for the car, expecting rain. A kind of small, fluffy hail fell instead, tapping against the vinyl seats of the swing set and settling in the boys’ hair. I was surprised at my own delight, expecting dread instead, not ready for autumn to officially end.
Back in the car together we talked excitedly about winter things like scarves and snowball fights. But privately, I’m mostly looking forward to the sun going down a touch earlier, curling up under a blanket on the couch after putting the boys to bed, and reading till my eyes get tired. I’ll crease my page, stand up and stretch, and realize both my tea and the room has gone cold because I’ve been too lost in my story to take a sip or throw another log on the fire.
In those moments, it may as well just be the moon and me.
Kelly McMasters is a writer living in northeast Pennsylvania. Her book, Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town, inspired the documentary The Atomic States of America, a Sundance 2012 selection. Her essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post Magazine, The American Scholar, Newsday, River Teeth, and Tin House, among others. She recently opened Moody Road Studios with her husband, artist Mark Milroy, in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. They hope you come and visit!