Sometimes a book comes into your life at just the right moment. There’s something in it that speaks to your specific place in space and time, like the heavens aligning for an eclipse.
I spent my 16th year as an exchange student in France, living with a French family, attending a French school, and being completely immersed in the language—which I barely spoke a word of when I arrived. Even though I was an obsessive reader, I left my books at home. The whole point, I’d reasoned, was to forsake English for a year while I learned a different language. I rapidly realized my mistake—I was forlorn without books that I could understand.
So I wrote a letter to my Great Aunt Joan. In my reading life, my Aunt Joan was the Gandalf to my Frodo, the Merlin to my Arthur. She was responsible for most of the great literary loves of my childhood: the Moomins, Oz, the Dark is Rising series—all of them came from her. I wrote to her and I told her how forsaken I felt without any books that spoke to my heart.
Weeks later, I received a brown paper envelope with a note and a book inside. The note said, “This doesn’t have any dragons, but I think it may do the trick.” The book was her battered copy of Engine Summer by John Crowley.
Engine Summer takes place in a distant future, where the world has changed utterly from the one we know into something stranger and more mystical. Little hints and whispers are all that remain of the world as we know it. It tells the story of Rush that Speaks as he journeys in search of the woman he loves, as well as the truth about the mysterious saints and angels who have captured his imagination.
If you look up reviews of this book, you will find that they all mention its strangeness. Reading it is a little bit like trying to learn the layout of a room by looking at it through a kaleidoscope. It’s like a series of boxes folded inside one another, only instead of boxes they are cats, and instead of folding they are running around underneath a thick quilt.
When you dive head-first into learning a foreign language abroad, every sentence becomes a riddle. With every word you must interpret—not just the literal meaning of that word, but how it relates to all the others around it, and how they in turn relate to the culture and perspective of the person speaking them. Every day I felt like a failing detective, trying to untangle mysteries just so I could eat, sleep, and go about my obligations. I felt stupid all the time.
There could have been no more perfect moment to hand me the enigma of Engine Summer. Each page of the book dared me to look deeper, to peel back the layers and work to understand the true meaning that lay beneath. But this mystery – unlike those that left me exhausted and confused every hour of the day—this mystery was in my language. This was a riddle I could solve.
I set about it, writing up my theories. I was desperate for someone to discuss it with immediately, so in what might be my most nerdy moment ever, I wrote an elaborate analytical essay about the book’s symbolism and turned it in to my French literature professor, even though she had not asked for an essay and had never read the book. She returned it covered in a lot of red question marks.
I read the book about ten more times that year. I haven’t read it since. I know that it could not be the same.
My next fated book encounter happened several years later.
The summer after I graduated from college, I worked as a shepherdess on a farm in Maine. I was living in a tiny cabin that didn’t have electricity or plumbing, but did have a loom and a spinning wheel, spending my days tending to sheep and gardening. Almost all of my belongings had already made their way home without me, including my books, so I decided to indulge in what was undoubtedly the longest fantasy novel released that year: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. My copy arrived by mail, and I remember walking through the fields and out to my cabin that night, clutching it happily to my chest.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell tells the story of two nineteenth-century magicians who revive the art of magic in England, becoming celebrities and entangling themselves in warfare, politics, and dark, mystical forces.
Every night, after the sheep were safely pastured and all the chores were done, I would make my way home, climb up into the loft, light my candles, and get lost in Clarke’s world of English magic. The wind in the trees, the shuffling of the horse pastured not far from my door, and the flickering of candles entwined seamlessly with the otherworldly mystery of the novel. Sometimes it almost felt as though I had been transported to that older, stranger time.
I’ve tried several times since to reread it. I want to laugh at its clever footnotes and appreciate its nuanced characters with an older eye. But every time I open it, I miss the golden candlelight and the scratch of pine branches against my darkened window. My experience of it was not the sum of its beautiful and clever words printed in black ink upon the page, but something richer. It is impossible to go again through that particular portal to Faerie.
And that is both the beauty and tragedy of the right book for the right time. It can save you, and transport you—but like those who grow too old for Narnia, there can be no going back again.
Top image by Stewart Butterfield.
This article was originally published in April 2016.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and storyteller. She is an editor at Goblin Fruit, and can sometimes be found discussing folklore and pop culture on the Fakelore Podcast or performing with the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours.