The Comfort Of Familiar Books

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Throughout my life, whenever things felt overwhelming or dark, I would return to the books that I loved the most for comfort. As a kid, I spent a lot of time with Anne Shirley, Jo March, Meg Murry, Sara Crew, Laura Ingalls, Mary Lennox, the Pevensie children, or the works of Edward Eager, E. Nesbitt, or E. B. White. I wanted to run away with Claudia and her brother Jamie to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or go to Moonacre Manor with Maria Merryweather or to Oz with Dorothy Gale

The older I got, the more authors and books I added to that list. One of my favorites, who always comes through in a pinch, is Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. I found kindred spirits in characters like Cassandra Mortmain from Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle or I wanted to spend time in Guernsey with their Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I returned again and again to Helene Hanff’s letters from 84 Charing Cross Road or the rural tales of veterinarian  James Herriot or Port William in the fiction of Wendell Berry.

I continued returning to my favorite children’s books and discovered new ones, like the Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall or pretty much anything by Kate DiCamillo.

Yet, recently, the book I find myself taking down from the shelf and simply meditating on its simple story and beautiful illustrations is Jiro Taniguchi’s The Walking Man. Some may recognize the title from its being referenced in the bestselling novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.

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Unlike most manga, The Walking Man is a visual poem of the ordinary. Its story, told mostly with images and with very few words, is about a nameless protagonist and what he encounters as he simply walks around his neighborhood and his city. Even the title of each chapter is mundane: The Bird Watcher, Snow, Around Town, Tree Climbing, Rain, A Blanket of Cherry Blossom, A Nice Hot Bath.

This is a contemplative work, something that is not meant to be rushed through, but for the reader to stop themselves, look more closely at Taniguchi’s drawings and then go out into their own world, wander and wonder and notice it. This is not about story and narrative, but about reflection. It’s about taking time to enjoy the simple, mundane pleasures that the world affords us: lying on our backs in the grass, watching birds, climbing a tree, taking a bath, feeling the cool breeze on one’s skin, the scent of flowers, or splashing in rain puddles.

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The Walking Man is about the small journeys we take in our own neighborhoods and towns. It’s about the deeper journey we take within ourselves as we allow ourselves to be present to the world about us. It’s about the outer transformations that occur (storms, snow) and the inner ones that we can easily overlook within because we are too busy.

There is a gentleness to Taniguchi’s work. It’s about a man simply appreciating and being fascinated by everyday life. There are no major revelations or great insights other than for us to become more like this nameless man.

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The Walking Man is filled with humanity and elegant line drawings with their intricately constructed landscapes.  The drawings, like the message of the work, ask us to take our time and discover beauty in simplicity.

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Every time I return to the peaceful, reflective world of this book, I find myself within its pages. I slow down. I look closer and notice even more details each time I turn the page, which takes longer and longer with each reading because I am in the stillness and silence of the drawings. My pace begins to mirror the nameless man in the story.

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When I close the cover, I don’t rush to get up but I close my eyes for a few moments, almost as if in prayer. I sit with the images and I ask myself, “How can I take my time today to see and be present to what is around me?”

Do I sometimes, intentionally, not carry an umbrella so I can feel the gentle rain on my skin?

Do I lie in the grass and gaze up at the limbs of the tree and the clouds in the sky?

Do I close my eyes and touch the bark of a tree to feel its roughness against my palm?

Do I allow myself to actually experience the world around me?

Do I take the time to meet those who come across my path?

Do I experience joy by smelling a flower or petting a dog?

The images are both filled with the solitary as well as with community, which is vitally important and necessary to the sense of connectedness that runs throughout this masterpiece.

This is a work about ikigai (meaning “life” and “benefit” or “reason for living”). It’s about finding value in those daily moments we so often experience without being truly present to them.

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This is a thoughtful work created by someone who relishes the miraculousness of the mundane and sees the extraordinary beauty that’s found in the ordinary.  It came as no surprise to me that those who knew Jiro Taniguchi described him as “extraordinarily kind and gentle’ and this spirit shows in his work.

The Walking Man is a book you won’t just want to read, but you will want to savor and meditate on, as well as it will make you want nothing more than to go out into the world to walk and notice.

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “The Comfort Of Familiar Books

  1. Maybe it’s because I just got back from A Wrinkle in Time — but I was thinking about all those books we find comforting and the characters we love. I think the primary appeal is that no matter what era or place the book is set in, they are real people that we can relate to. And they perform heroic deeds that may not look like heroism at first glance. Even the Guernsey islanders holding their secret meetings, or Emma going to see Miss Bates to try to make up for her unkindness, or Cassandra letting go of Simon — they aren’t huge heroic deeds like Harry fighting Voldemort, but they’re all acts that draw on the best in themselves and push against darkness in some way, great or small. I wonder if there is also a kind of heroism in observing and seeing like the Walking Man does. Because it challenges the tyranny of busy-ness, ambition, the desire for power and control, and just allows us to BE — which takes a lot of courage when you think about it. Mr. Rogers knew that secret too: to just be, and appreciate the light in ourselves and in others.

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