The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Certain book read in a certain place

Rachael Conlin Levy
Field Tested Books, 2008 edition

I’ve been thinking a lot about books and places, and the bond that can be forged between the two. The idea that there’s a connection is the impetus of Field Tested Books by Coudal Partners. From the introduction by Jim Coudal:

“We had this notion that somehow through experimentation we could identify how our perception of a book is affected by the place where we read it. Or maybe the other way around. Maybe it’s possible to determine how a book colors the way we feel about the place where we experience it.

“We know, without a doubt, that book and place do affect each other, and that they are bound as a single experience in our memories.

“Complicating the quest for a tidy conclusion is the fact that sometimes the place where we read a book is not just a geographical spot but also a psychological one. In fact, the most compelling Field Tests in this collection are the ones in which a book, a physical place, and a significant emotional moment collide.”

There are many books I absolutely love, that shaped me as a child and teen, but only one that I can remember exactly where I was when I read it. Here it is:

The 2006 edition, “The Illustrated Jane Eyre.”

I scan the school bus for empty seats and spot one in the middle — a good seat. Location is important: Too close to the front and I’m sitting among the scumbags and dirt-heads — the kids who smell like B.O., pick their noses or are in special-ed class. A seat too close to the back of the bus and I’m an easy target for the older, bitchy girls who drink cough syrup on the way to school in an effort to get high, and the guys who laugh and make rude gestures at their crotch when I yawn.

But today I find one in the middle. I slide in and sit near the window, dumping my backpack next to me as a sign that I don’t want to share the space. I rummage around inside the backpack, searching with my hands for the felty soft pages of “Jane Eyre.” The cover had been lost long ago and the rest of the book was held together by tape. It first was my mom’s — a required text from her days in Catholic high school — and in the back it held the notes she had written to herself: “Helen Burns — friend (died, Jane 10 yrs.), Lowood — school, Miss Temple — nice woman, Mr. Rochester — owner of Thornfield.”

I huddle down in the bus seat, creating a wall of vinyl green around me, making me, for all practical purposes, invisible, just like Jane. I wiggle and breathe a happy sigh knowing exactly how the heroine felt as she huddled in her own window seat, reading in secret and safety. I love Jane Eyre. As a marginalized teen struggling to define myself, I grok this “poor, obscure, plain, and little” orphan who challenges the bullies and the brutes, shapes her own fate and commands her own destiny. Jane speaks directly to me, she acts for me.

The emotional connection I have with this worn and musty smelling paperback edition doesn’t make sense. It just is. The book is my guide through adolescence, because Jane’s efforts to define herself mirror my own. It’s comforting to know that when life is particularly lonely and difficult, Jane is there too, insisting on finding her own set of values and enduring punishing exiles because of it.

For an hour I sit hidden between the bus seats, miles away inside the book. I don’t check the time or glance up to see where I am on the route. After years of riding back and forth, I can feel when my stop is coming up: a lurch at the railroad tracks, a right turn onto a washboard road, and I pull myself away from Jane and the English moor. Stumbling off the bus, I stand on the side of an empty dirt road, dazed and squinting under a hot desert sun. Alone.

My thanks to Write Now is Good for sharing information about Field Tested Books, and issuing the challenge to write about book and place. More essays on the subject can be found there.

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