How Libraries Saved Cheryl Strayed

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

That Janis Joplin was arrested for cursing onstage in Tampa. I’ve always loved a woman who uses language to push the boundaries.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

The same things that move me in life. Intelligence. Heart. Humor. Empathy. Generosity. Courage. Honesty. Grit. And of course, to convey any of that on the page, you have to be a great writer. Voice is everything.

How do you organize your books?

Before I had children I organized them by genre, alphabetically, but the demands of motherhood proved too great for me to stay on top of such things. Now it’s pure chaos. Every book is nowhere and everywhere. Last week I had to purchase a copy of “Little Women” for my daughter, Bobbi, because she’d seen the movie twice and wanted to read the book and even though I probably own three copies already, not one of them could be found. Recently, I offered to pay my son, Carver, by the hour if he would create a document cataloging the title, author and location of every book in our house. He agreed, which seems fitting, since he’s named after Raymond Carver. Plus, it was his birth that started all this trouble.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

“Stocking Up: How to Preserve the Foods You Grow, Naturally,” edited by Carol Hupping and published by Rodale Press. It was my mother’s — one among many such books she owned about how to live self-sufficiently, which we did all through my teenage years in rural northern Minnesota. My family didn’t have indoor plumbing until I was a sophomore in college and we spent a few years living without electricity and running water as well. My mother grew our vegetables and herbs and she preserved everything, so we ate them throughout the winter too. Most nights my husband and I fashion dinner together from something we picked up at our local grocery store deli, but my mother’s legacy as a back-to-the-land domestic goddess lives on in the books that sit unused on our kitchen shelves.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

My mother gave me “The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson” when I was 21. It was a gift of congratulations after I won a writing award from the English department at the University of Minnesota, where I was an undergraduate. It was my first writing prize. At the time, I was still as much of a poet as a prose writer and my mother’s inscription says: To Cheryl, The 20th, 21st century poet. Mom. She died nine months later.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

When I was very young — like 3 and 4 — my mother read “Black Beauty,” by Anna Sewell, and “Bambi, a Life in the Woods,” by Felix Salten, out loud to me. She didn’t read the abridged versions of these books, but rather the original full-length novels, which were packed with sorrow and violence and cruelty and danger. In retrospect, I think perhaps they weren’t really meant for children. I remember my sister and I weeping at the sad parts as our mother read to us, while also begging her to go on.

Those early experiences aside, my main memory of books in my childhood is one of longing. In elementary school, they used to hand out catalogs from the Scholastic publishing company that allowed you to order books that would then be delivered to you at school. I’d study those catalogs for hours and meticulously fill out the order form on the back, as if I could buy them. But I couldn’t. I never turned in the forms because my family was too poor to pay for the books. It’s such a visceral memory, aching for those books! The public libraries and school libraries saved me, as did my mother’s bookshelf. I read everything that looked even a little bit interesting.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Alice Munro, Audre Lorde, Grace Paley. I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it.

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