This past summer I finally got around to reading Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin’s award-winning novel from the mid-’80s. It takes the form of an anthropological treatise on the civilization that will replace ours once we’ve finished screwing up the planet, and the book is pretty well unmatched in the way it fleshes out an entire culture–the society she depicts is as complete and convincing as any real one you could study in the here and now.
The Kesh people aren’t perfect, but Le Guin’s vision of them is certainly Utopian, and one of the most remarkable things about the book is how positive and productive their relationship is with the landscape in which they live. Despite the far-future setting, Always Coming Home is very much a novel of place, and it’s impossible to think of it without visualizing the valleys of northern California.
Thing is, I will always associate the book with the south of France. I was fortunate enough to read it on vacation, so for me the Kesh reside in what was once America and also exist on a Mediterranean beach. Lucky Kesh, I know. Somehow the act of carrying that book, taking it in and out of my bag, and squinting at it through the sun etched it permanently in my mind. I may forget the details of what happens in the narrative, but I know I’ll forever remember where and when I read it.
This is one of the unsung powers a book possesses, the way it can capture memories not only of the story that it tells, but of the circumstances experienced by the reader who turns its pages. It’s the physical aspect of the process that enables this, or so I am convinced.
Whether it’s currently being read or not, there’s a tangibility to a book that establishes a presence. My Le Guin novel still gives off a whiff of sunscreen and has sand in the binding, for example. Even without that, though, having the spine in sight on a shelf, peripherally or otherwise, triggers something in me. Every time I glance at it, I’m transported back to the beach and relive my summer vacation in some small way.
I still remember my ninth birthday party, when I sat at my kitchen table and a classmate named Greg gave me a beautifully illustrated hardcover copy of Treasure Island. I leafed through it then, but the nineteenth-century language didn’t grab me at the time, and I didn’t read it until much later. I lived with it for years, though, boxing and unboxing it when my family moved to a new house. Turned out to be a great story, of course–I’m sure Long John Silver would live in my imagination whatever my book looked like or however I acquired it. But I guarantee that I wouldn’t remember the details of that party, and probably wouldn’t remember poor Greg at all, if my Treasure Island weren’t a thing that existed in the physical world.
I want to have the same connection to my reading as the Kesh do to their homeland. For me, a book is even better when it’s held in the hand as well as in the mind.