I love it when surprises come tumbling out of books.
In the opening chapter of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, we find Professor Lidenbrock exulting over a newly acquired antique volume when a tattered piece of paper falls to the floor. On it is written a set of runes, an ancient code which, once deciphered, will lead him deep (very deep) into the greatest adventure of his life. It’s my favorite scene in the book, not because it’s the most exciting, but because it holds so much promise and because I can’t help imagining how that would have felt. I have always found the wonder and “aha!” of discovery fairly intoxicating.
One summer Before Kids, my husband and I were exploring in Bangor, Maine when we wandered into a tiny used bookstore. It was delightfully stuffy with that singular smell of old paper and ink, and the wool-clad little woman behind the heavy corner desk seemed to have been written into place, she fit the scene so well. As I was prone to do in those days, I found a small volume of poetry that had a nice binding and bought it for a souvenir. I’d no sooner taken it out into the sunshine for a closer look, when a piece of notepaper slipped to the sidewalk. Curious, I opened it to find, written in a tidy cursive hand, For Becky. Chills, right? Just a coincidence of course, and this clue, if it was one, never led me anywhere. But I loved that moment, finding my name inscribed there as if it were the tag on a special, whimsical gift.
Another day, the cold and rainy epitome of January on California’s northern coast, I found a tiny 1937 diary at the flea market. It was nameless and mouldering, the writing inside barely legible. But I was intrigued, and purchased it for a dollar. Its contents, faded as they were, led me on a journey that was to me as heady and entirely thrilling as Professor Lidenbrock’s. Clue led to clue, and in the years that followed I became acquainted, posthumously, with a delightfully fascinating and unusual woman. Nights spent transcribing her disobliging penmanship led to university archives, newspaper morgues, and the homes of retired professors, scientists and reporters. Ultimately, I would learn that my special discovery was a treasure not just to me but the scientific community as well.
And then there are the flower petals. The ones that slip from the pages of my old Bible at unexpected moments, faded bougainvillea from Israel making flat little magenta fans between chapters in Matthew and Luke. In a moment I’m spirited away. I can smell the hummus, taste the tilapia, feel the gentle Galilee swooshing at my ankles. Other petals cling to random sections of our heavy copy of Webster’s, tissue paper remnants of Cecil Brunner roses and tiny forget-me-nots, still remarkably pink and blue and smelling of birthdays and nature walks. These botanical envoys surprise me every time with the memories they bring flashing to mind and the instant imagined journeys they inspire.
Has anything ever tumbled out of a book (or leapt from its pages) that surprised you, or perhaps launched you on a journey? We’d love to hear your Professor Lidenbrock moment, even if that journey wasn’t to the actual center of the earth.