Last weekend, I visited Atlanta with two of my best friends, both former English teachers. Susan and Laura have always been like big sisters to me, giving me great advice throughout our 15 years of conversation. We try to spend one weekend every year together, and no matter where we are, we always end up at a bookstore, where we furiously ask each other who has read what, what we need to read next, and what we should leave on the shelf.
This past weekend was no different. The bookstore was Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, GA. We tore through the place, looking for titles the others had not yet discovered. My older daughter and Laura’s daughters were with us, and it was fun to see them being as active in their competition to suggest the best books as we were. We all left the store with more books to read than time to read them in.
It wasn’t until we returned home to Charlotte, though, that my daughter and I noticed the paper bag that our books were loaded into back in Decatur. The front side was plain enough, light blue with a yellow outline of a book and a chair. But the back, we quickly discovered, was both plain and brilliant.
“Chapter One,” it began, “Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.”
Densely packed type that was easy enough to read covered the bag’s entire backside, listing many of the most famous first lines in the history of literature.
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
“All this happened, more or less.”
“I am an invisible man.”
“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
There are doubtless hundreds of links to lists of “Top Ten Famous First Lines from Literature” being passed along the social media power lines as I write this blog. But seeing these famous lines packed in tight print on the back of the bag holding our heavy stack of books nearly took my breath away.
Happiness filled my heart — I knew where these lines came from, and so did the person who designed this bag, and so did my friends, and so will our children.
For me, the idea of slipping six news novels onto an e-reader that fits neatly in my handbag has never been terribly appealing. I will always want to see and to hold tangible artifacts like books and the bags we use to carry them. I will always need them to do what only they can do: prove our existence, strengthen our relationships, and secure our legacies.
My daughter’s and my books are waiting patiently on our respective bedroom floors and bedside tables for us to pull them into our laps and minds. The bag sits on the floor of my home office. I’ve already reread it. I think I’ll reread it again now.