‘the book’ by Sarah Kokai Thwaites

the book’ –  lowercase because this is less a book review (the title and author are lost) than a tribute to the power of reading, the value of public libraries, and the wonderful serendipity that the right book will appear when we need it to …..

“I have to preface this writing with an admission that it completely fails to answer the question. I don’t know why the book in question resonated so much or for so long even without me realising it. I’m not sure I fully understand its impact on me. I can’t even tell you the name or author because I don’t remember it. This article therefore also fails entirely as a book review. It is however the book that I am most grateful for having stumbled upon and I so find myself writing about it as my most honest, if entirely inadequate, answer to this question.

First some context: over 30 years ago I was an angst-ridden teenager in what felt to me like an angst-ridden era. It was the time of the Cold War and the gloomier of us teens were given to fears and speculation about nuclear annihilation. I didn’t see a future for the world, still less a place for me in the world should it survive. That summer I had come close to killing myself. On one of my lowest days, I picked up a book (I always had a book to hand) and walked into town, knowing I needed time and space to myself. I sat with my book under a weeping willow tree in the park, close to the river. I don’t remember reading any of my book. Instead I let my thoughts play out in my head. Thoughts of death, of killing myself spiralled around. I’m not sure I really wanted to die but I seemed to have no interest in living. It wasn’t the first time when I felt like that and it wouldn’t be the last but it was the final time that I seriously considered suicide. I went through all the possible ways of doing it, trying to find the method that would be the least traumatic to whoever found my body. It didn’t even occur to me that my death would be traumatic for people who knew me; in my head the world would clearly have been better off without me. None of the possible methods seemed quite right. I ruled out anything that would leave too much of a mess for someone to clear up. I couldn’t swallow tablets. I was a competent swimmer even fully dressed which ruled out drowning myself in the nearby river. It seemed I couldn’t even do dying. Eventually, under that tree, it seemed like I had run out of thinking and my head slowed down to an almost stop. There then appeared a voice or thought of “You’re not going to do it and you know you aren’t. Just get on with it”. (The ‘it’ I was being instructed by my inner voice to get on with was life not suicide, of that I was certain).

That day did not remove any of my personal issues or angst but it now felt more pressing or maybe just safer to preoccupy myself with world problems. So, alongside the usual teenage concerns about hair, spots, personal inadequacies and insecurities I continued an obsessive search of the local library looking for answers to the world’s problems. Amidst a mass of world literature, I devoured mountains of Russian fiction hoping that understanding our supposed enemy might help. I was studying history, so I’d also plundered the history aisle, looking to the past for answers for the future. At one point I began to teach myself Esperanto with the optimistic hope that if we all spoke one language we’d understand each other and there would be no need for war. It didn’t take too long before it dawned on me that a common language hadn’t stopped conflict in Northern Ireland and before I noticed the practical snag that there was no-one else to talk Esperanto to.

It was in a state of mental exhaustion and having already read through most other parts of the library that I found myself at the religion shelf and picking up a book on Buddhism. I didn’t take it home but read it almost furtively in the library. I think I thought that seeing me with that book would freak out my parents to whom I probably was already a cause for some concern. In Carlisle Buddhism was probably associated only with the occasional orange-robed monk visiting from Sameling Monastery and certainly seemed strange and foreign.

Being a militantly vegetarian, pacifist doom-lover, it was probably the precept of “Do not kill” and the messages about suffering being universal that had the most obvious appeal. I think the book though really worked on me more at a subconscious level because I found myself thinking as I put the book back “when I’m old and in need of a religion, this will be it” despite at the time not being able to conceive living until I was ‘old’ and certainly with little interest in doing so. I then forgot about the book and Buddhism for the some decades.

But while I forgot the book, it seems it was still having an impact on me. I didn’t consciously remember what I read in it over the years but when 25+ years later I found myself unexpectedly with a serious meditation habit and once again browsing the shelves of a different public library, I found that much of what I read was already known and familiar and seemed to have been embedded itself somewhere deep inside. The precepts and the Four Noble Truths seemed particularly familiar. I don’t remember reading anything in the book about meditation so that was something that took a while to discover (after life, parenthood and the great outdoors helped soften me up to some extent).

I can’t say whether or not that would have happened without the book or the long forgotten decision that Buddhism would be the religion I’d turn to in old age (I now prefer to think of this as middle age but that is probably because by the standards of the teen me I am now positively ancient). It would be nice to be able to go back and pay more attention to the book, to at least jot down its title and author so that I know who I’m grateful to. But I didn’t. Perhaps I should also thank the librarian who chose to order a book on Buddhism for a 1980s Cumbrian library and pay tribute to chance and the bizarre twists of life.”