Ode to the Word

On dusty shelves, sentences simmer

Jerome Deville died peacefully late last month at the age of 49.

If it's true, as many claim, that at death some part of us leaves the body and floats toward the ceiling, then Jerome looked down on his books, watching them get smaller and smaller, and then fade into a milky white light as he left behind his life's great love.

He did not die surrounded by family and friends. He died surrounded by words.

Jerome Deville was a specific type of reader, one harder to find these days. He wouldn't approve of the term "voracious." It smacked of gluttony. He preferred "natural reader." He used to say if one is blessed as a natural reader and if that reading is accompanied by a burning passion, then he or she has the greatest gifts life offers.

"Your path ahead is laid out beautifully," he'd say. "Your life is certain to be an astonishingly wondrous adventure."

Jerome's beloved books were sold last week at a garage sale. They were scattered across his backyard on Colfax Avenue in three dozen cardboard boxes arranged by subject. His only known relative, a second cousin from Rochester, stood nearby.

"His clothes were not he," she said. "His furniture, his tools, his bank account—none of that was who he was. But with these books, I'm not so sure. I can't get out of my head that each person here is walking away with pieces of him." 

Seventy percent of adults in this country have not been in a bookstore in the last five years. Eighty percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year. One-third of high school graduates will never read another book the rest of their lives, and just under half of all college graduates won't read a book again once their diploma is in hand.

Jerome would not have said he was better than any of them. He would have said he's luckier. He was a natural. And he had the fire.

"Someone writing a book," he once said, "has completed a staggeringly laborious project. They've given birth to some new world. The publisher is holding it out there in the hopes that the public might want to have that world inside their heads. Even if we're not interested in 99 percent of what's offered, the remaining 1 percent is far more than any of us could read in a lifetime. Only one thing stops the literate from reading a book: The inability to know what, or where, that 1 percent might be. If one were to come across it, passion would ignite like a cherry bomb."

Jerome's second cousin put the cash in a cigar box. The trampled lawn was covered with books that had failed to fall into that 1 percent for sale patrons—the scattered remains included books on the Druids, William Manchester's The Glory and the Dream, Charles Bukowski's Last Night of the Earth Poems, a scholarly study of shamanism, Shelby Foote's three-volume history of the Civil War, The Basics of Gardening, and a biography of Miles Davis.

"Two days before he died he was reading the last book he'd ever hold," his second cousin said. "He fell asleep with it on his chest. It made so little sense that I had to laugh. It was The Complete Idiot's Guide to Cooking.

"I asked him later why he'd chosen that particular book and he whispered, 'I can't swallow food anymore, so come meal time, reading how to make a simple pork kabob is the next best thing.'"

Then Jerome told his second cousin about Winston Churchill's library and how the old British prime minister cherished his books even when he was unable to read them. He passed along his favorite quote of Churchill's, which she made sure to jot down. It went like this:

"If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or, as it were, fondle them—peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on their shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that if you do not know what is in them, you will at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances."

Walk into a library or bookstore, Jerome would have urged. Study those shelves of strangers longing to be friends, or at any rate, acquaintances. Believe that there's a compatriot, a mentor, some pal, perhaps a true love waiting there for you.

Then follow the fire.  

 
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