“Which book do you first remember reading as a child that pulled you into its world, where you became completely engrossed in its characters and events?” A friend asked recently.
With barely a pause I could tell her. Without much effort I could be there all over again, on the Alm with wind buffeting me as I labored up the steep cliff to the pasture where the carpet of rock roses stretched before me, the bleating of goats filled my ears and my mouth watered for the golden, toasted cheese that would be set before me in the rustic hut where Heidi lived with her grandfather—where I lived with the grandfather. Heidi, by Johanna Spyri was the first book I read like that, that thrilled me with its realness.
I can see it in my mind's eye now, the six-year-old girl I once was perched on her top bunk, absorbed in the adventure of Heidi. She was more than my friend. To be honest, I was Heidi: frolicking on the mountain, smelling the fresh hay of my bed, twisted with the heart-sickening longing for home when stranded in the Sesemann house in Frankfurt. So vivid was my life inside that story that when my mother called me I had a little trouble recalling that she was downstairs not far down the mountain. And when I reached the end there was that blissful satisfaction with the exquisitely happy ending. I immediately started reading the book again.
History repeats itself. Thirty-five years later, on a different bed, I was reading Heidi to my youngest daughter. I could not put it down. She wouldn't let me. When I said, “The end,” she said, “Mama, please read it again!” So I did—all the way from page one through to the end. In those days of reading together, I didn't need to ask her where she'd been or what she'd been doing while playing outdoors. I knew she'd been running with Peter and visiting the blind grandmother.
I've read this book to all six of my children. Naturally, I've read dozens, probably hundreds, of other enthralling books since Heidi, but that was the first one that carried me away from the paved city in the flatland of Michigan to the remote Alps, from things American to things Swiss, from the taste of peanut butter to fresh goat's milk. Certainly, part of its magic was those differences. Even after so many readings, though I know every single detail that will unfold in the story, each time I begin it with delighted anticipation. Of course I read it with different eyes, life having provided me with ample new experiences of people and places. I'm more apt now to live inside the mind of the bitter Alm-Uncle or the fearful Grandmother, the grieving Doctor, or the jealous Peter.
Great books can be enjoyed on so many different levels. Sometimes they carry us off to somewhere we've never been, and that's why we love them. Sometimes they transport us into other times that fascinate us with the differences in lifestyle and the sameness of people. Sometimes they grip us with danger or calamity or tests of endurance in circumstances far beyond the range of our past, present, or future experience. If you've read a good book, you know all about this—this living somewhere else in someone else's life. It's part of the draw pulling you to the next book.
All this said, I chuckle to myself with inner amusement and chagrin at the recollection of once asking some homeschooling friends to explain to me what a living book was. Like so many moms that now ask me that question, I was specifically searching for clear guidelines in choosing good books for my children for educational purposes. If, in the first place, one of them had simply asked me the question my friend did the other day, the one that got me on this Heidi tangent, I would have immediately understood. Of course Heidi educated me. In fact, Heidi would be an excellent geography book.
Obviously, moms who ask, “What is a living book?” know that books do not move and breathe and have being. Books are cardboard, paper and ink, and glue (though the best ones are stitched). The best books reveal the living ideas of another mind that was very much alive when the potent ideas were put into words. We read and our living mind grabs hold of and runs with those ideas, feeds on them, is nourished by them. When I was a child, Heidi was a story of wonder and surprise. Now that I have put away childish things, it still is, yet so much more. It is a story about trust and forgiveness and gratitude and miracles. This is why the book endures as a classic, a pleasure to young and old, a treasure for life.
It makes us more alive for having read it.