Published Online: March 5, 1997


Books or Shoes?

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Jeremy reminds me that three books equal one pair of good shoes.

Walking down Willard Street in Cambridge, Mass., one winter evening, I was drawn to lighted windows, bright squares amid the deepening cold and darkness. What caught my attention were the books: In house after house, built-in shelves held rows and rows of books. These old houses were built when people had small libraries of their own, and the current residents continue to fill those shelves.

I thought about my predawn walks back home in Maine, most houses dark. On the corner of Hillside and Church Street, I used to see a woman curled up on her couch reading at 5 a.m., but she moved away, and now that window, too, is dark.

I was walking that evening in Cambridge to meet Jeremy, my older son, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a voracious reader. I told him about my delight as reader, writer, and teacher at seeing all those lovely old houses filled with books, and shared, too, my sense of loss that so few people treasure books and reading any more. His younger brother, Micah, loves the heft of hardback books and has begun building a collection of his own, but he's a writer, completing his first novel at the age of 19, so his passion for books isn't representative of the age.

With infinite practicality, Jeremy looked at me and said, "Books are a luxury. The price of three hardback books would buy a good pair of shoes."

I was stunned into silence.

He's right, of course. After all, I had been the one to defend the offensive American major in "Taking Sides," the Broadway play about a conductor who continued to perform in Hitler's Germany. I had gone to see the play with other writers, and most of them sympathized with the conductor's sentiment that art transcends politics. But, like the major, I couldn't balance the scales with the weight of Holocaust victims on the other side. Buchenwald outweighed any art.

And yet, just the week before seeing Jeremy, I had shown my seniors the Maysles' documentary film about Christo's "Running Fence," and was, once again, captivated by the strange beauty of the fence, running like a backbone over those 24 miles of California farmland and coastland. Christo had talked about the whole community involvement in the project being part of the art, and two of my students, Sam and Matt, agreed that they would have liked to be part of the project, part of that community.

Then Heather spoke up: "Couldn't you get the same sense of accomplishment building houses for Habitat for Humanity?" And this time I'd wanted to defend the art--just as now, facing Jeremy, I wanted to defend books. But my feet were warm in L.L. Bean lined boots, and I had a warm home waiting for me.

"Books are a luxury." The words continue to haunt me as I realize that reading itself has become a luxury. Poet and essayist Rachel Hadas writes of reading and leisure, needing time to enter the world of the book--and how hard it is to find that kind of time anymore amid the frantic busyness of life. I recall my grandmother Ruth Hanford's comment that books to her "were like strong drink to a drunkard," naming the pleasure of reading as both guilty and addictive, as time stolen from something else we "should" be doing.

Questions haunt me. For those of us who write: Who will read our books? For those of us who read: When will we find the time? For those of us who teach: What books should we ask our students to read?

Gertrude Stein told her friends to buy serviceable clothes and spend their money on art. Jeremy reminds me that three books equal one pair of good shoes. Clothes or art? Habitat for Humanity or Running Fence? Books or shoes?

I want both.

Mary Lee Wile is a high school teacher and writer living in Yarmouth, Maine.

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