A Life in books

By Monique Lafrenière

They twirl around in their poodle skirts, sporting bobby socks and saddle shoes, learning to rock ’n’ roll to the sounds of “Jailhouse Rock” or to slow dance to the Platters’ “Only You.” They flitter from house to house, these preteens, checking out friends’ new clothes and shades of lipstick. They giggle, gossip and moan about their teachers. Their slim bodies will fill out in a couple of years, ready for the world of grown-ups.

But not I. I am not allowed to have friends and to meet girls outside of school, nor dance, nor listen to popular music. Rock ’n’ roll is an aberration, says my father, Elvis’s gyrating hips an affront to decency and the Catholic church. My life is confined within the walls of school, church and home. A small life in a small village.

And so, I read books.

I have long exhausted the school library: La Comtesse de Ségur and French translations of Haggard, Dickens and Scott have been read and reread. Young adult writers from past centuries have revealed all their secrets. Soeur Jacques, my French teacher, takes pity on me and shares treasures from the nuns’ library: Hugo, Balzac, Verne, Lamartine. My mind soars with each discovery, the words absorbed like rays of sunshine, my imagination transported to other times, other places, loathe to return to the present. Books save me.

They go out on Saturday nights, wreathed in Lily of the Valley perfume, necking in dads’ borrowed cars, sometimes going all the way, with consequences a few months down the road.

But not I. I know nothing of sex, a taboo subject in my home. A first inkling comes from reading the biographies of the mistresses of King Louis XIV. The good king had an aversion to water and only bathed three times in his long life, if one is to believe the gossip. He was brushed with alcohol and drowned in perfume instead, his passions inflamed by the bodily smells of his unwashed lovers. It will be a little while yet until the hard facts about the birds and the bees supplement my juvenile erotic imagination.

And so, I read books.

They become salesgirls, waitresses and farmer’s wives, and they will live and die in the village where they were born, their world getting narrower with each passing year.

But not I. Freedom has come. I live in the big city. I create a life of beauty and excitement: studies, a husband, work, friends, parties and travel. I grab every brass ring that comes my way. My youth has left me with an unquenchable thirst for life, and I intend to empty the cup to the last drop.

And so, I read . . . fewer books.

I teach myself to read and speak English. I spend many a happy hour in the den, ensconced in the sofa, a pile of books next to me, a dictionary at the ready to look up unknown words. I repeat sentences out loud, the better to attune my ears to their sounds. My world broadens with new genres, cultures and voices, admiring the worlds apart of John Steinbeck and Somerset Maugham.

And so, I read books . . . in English.

Graduate school beckons. So much to learn, a whole new jargon about leadership and organizational change. I need words to explain the concepts and support reflection that will lead to change. I build a reference library and polish my business writing; the new words saturate the nooks and crannies of my brain.

And so, I read lots and lots of books.

Work is over and done with. A door closes, leaving room for new ones to open. I dabble in creative writing. No more dry, professional reports. I write what I want – stories, poems, fiction, memoirs. I learn a new craft and populate my library shelves with all kinds of books on writing.

And so, I write books.

The time has come when the adventures of the past outweigh those of the future. I downsize my home library, happy to get rid of the workbooks, a bit sad to abandon others. I save the books on death and dying; they may come in handy at some point. But what to do with all the unread books? The public library is my Mecca these days. I cram my remaining brain cells with as many books as I can before my vision clouds over into eternity.

And so, I read books.

Monique Lafrenière is an emerging writer who has published several memoir pieces and short stories. Her first book is a food memoir/recipe book entitled: Fruitcake, Anyone? Memories, Musings and Recipes from a Food Lover, 2020. She is currently at work on a novel.

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