"A few weeks ago, at a dinner, a discussion arose as to the
unfinished dramas recorded in the daily press. The argument
was, if I remember correctly, that they give us the beginning
of many stories, and the endings of many more. But what
followed those beginnings, or preceded those endings, was
seldom or never told."
— "The Red Lamp," Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1925

Connecting Threads 

J.M. Barrie once wrote, "the life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it."

I wondered about my life. Is there anything that ties it all together... this life I have been making? Or is it just like time in postmodern literature: a patchwork tenuously stitched to the present? Mentally drifting backward one day, I stumbled into my old Whittier philosophy class. I could see the slim white-haired professor staring owlishly at us as he spoke without notes to a class of terrified freshman.

"You only need one idea to survive," he intoned. "And most of you" (here he paused dramatically) "will be lucky to have even one." Abruptly, he turned and walked out.

Not alone

Professor Upton was more right than we realized. Albert Einstein claimed he had only "two ideas" in his entire life. Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher best known for his explorations of questions of being, voiced the same thing. Heidegger's maxim was that all major thinkers have only one thought, which they reiterate through all their work. It may not be exactly accurate, but it does point to a vital truth — focusing on one insight might be an avenue to connections not possible through expansive analysis and study.

Doctoral students know this too. My own research topic — how do people best learn new written material? — was part of one idea that has woven through my life. While not the only thread, it remains among the strongest. Books matter. Amazing in their variety, diverse in their opinions, by turns gloomy or joyful, haunting or forgettable, lyrical or tedious, they have connected my single life not only to itself, but also to the larger sweep of humanity.

A gift

No long ago a distant cousin gave me a dog-eared brown leather embossed book that had belonged to her mother-in-law. She included a note:

"Dear Anne, Shortly after I finished your volume, I was trying valiantly to sort
out a big old book shelf for our library book sale. I have a hard time with that job.
It's easy to give away new books, but not old ones. This one belonged to Roger's
mother. Inside are our old friends R.L. Stevenson and H.W. Longfellow, whose
quotes in your book I remembered so well. I hope you enjoy having it. It is a
reminder of times gone by. Much love, Bunny"

Carefully written in faded ink on the flyleaf was "Norma Ayers, Bell, California, 1926." Norma would have been a great-great aunt... someone I didn't even realize existed. Discovering her made my world seem bigger in a very personal way. I found my twenty-first century self reading some nineteenth century poetry in a book belonging to a twentieth century family member. Three centuries... one little volume.

Proust was right when he said in books every reader finds himself. And we find not just ourselves, but C.S. Lewis' observation, "In reading, we find we are not alone."

So the professor was wrong about me. I didn't discover a new idea, but I built a life on the shoulders of towering stacks of books — some ponderous, some frivolous, big ones and small ones...all fitting snugly together to create a windbreak against the tide of time. Standing on them I felt like Dr. Seuss: "The more you read the more things you will know. The more that you learn the more places you'll go."

I got to visit Bell, California in 1926 because of a book. I have visited more exotic places too. In Ursula Le Guin's 1968 "Earthsea" I learned,

"And he began to see the truth, that Ged had neither lost or won but, naming
the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man:
who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power
other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life's sake and never in
the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark."

Books connect: past to present, present to future, reality to dreams. In a disposable world, they endure.

People can survive without reading but I agree with Flaubert: "Read in order to live." Surviving and living is not the same thing. Reading makes the difference.

That's my one idea.

- from It's All About the Story: Composing a Life in Books