Like someone running

Off she goes! What (and who) will she find in the forest of stories, and on the other side?
New Forest National Park, U.K., photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash

“I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there.”Rebecca Solnit

Unlike Solnit, I would say that my childhood was a happy one, but like her, I too disappeared into books from the time I learned to read– or even before then, when others read to me. When I ran into the woods, it was out of curiosity and an eagerness to explore, not to escape anything. As I grew older (and some of my classmates grew crueler, inclined to bully those who were different) reading did become an escape from a world where I often felt unwanted or misunderstood. But the enchantment with discovery was still the primary appeal of books.

From that time to this, I’ve depended on books, reading, and writing. In the sorrow and unending solitude since Jeff died, I have relied more than ever on written communication (increasingly translated to audio books or digital formats such as this). And yes, the other side of that solitary immersion into text is the connection to others who, for whatever reason, also wander through the “forest of stories.”

I know I’m not alone in this. Just look at the countless book groups that have sprung up like mushrooms, seemingly everywhere. Most of these gatherings are face-to-face meetings in neighborhood and community settings, where people go to meet others who share their favorite pastime. For the record, I’ve never been to one of these meetings, though I keep intending to go. My neighborhood, my churches and my local libraries all host such groups. Sooner or later (hopefully sooner) the day and time will be right for me to attend one of them.

And of course, there’s this blog, which introduced me to more people than I’d ever dreamed of meeting, and also enabled me to re-connect with people I’ve known for years. There are countless other blogs, too, each with its own unique community of people connecting through the “forest of stories” found in the posts and comments.

How about you? Do you ever run away into the forest of stories? Who have you met in real life, as a result of your literary discoveries? Do you belong to a book club, blog community or other group drawn together from shared adventures in reading? If so, we’d love to hear about it.

For years I had a magnet on my refrigerator that said “Libraries change lives.” One of the most important ways they do this is connecting us to others. Reading tells us we are not alone, and once we find that reassurance, we can indeed come out of the forest and find people just waiting to be friends.


  1. Chris

    Hi Julia,
    Very nice. While I was never a voracious reader in school, I did enjoy some stories. Now, the inquisitiveness was me through and through. My mission, as a kid, was “to boldly go” where I had not yet ventured! Besides getting into mischief quite often, new adventures seemed to bring new friends.
    In this day and age, connectivity with others is so much easier – for better or for worse. The bottom line is that we (people) were made for community, togetherness. Whether we find that connection thru our books, blogs, or physical proximity, relationships are healthy, and vital.
    And, in fact, I have met a few friends, in person, as a result of “literary discoveries”. The fascinating part is that my preconceived “notion” of that person changed after the physical meeting. That ever happen with you?
    My goal is to meet some of the regular contributors in the URF. I enjoy reading the daily devotional, but the comments are just as enjoyable. And, of course, I do look forward to the day that I will meet you! 😊

    • Chris, in some cases I have been surprised by what someone is like in person. But as regards this blog, of the dozen or so people I’ve met face-to-face that I first knew from here in the comments section, every time it’s like I’m meeting an old friend. As we have often commented to each other later, there is no awkward pause or superficial chit-chat on first meeting. It’s like we already know each other. This seems to validate my impression that it’s sometimes possible to know someone better through writing (and reading) than it is to meet them in a casual social situation. I think we tend to feel safer communicating in writing, particularly in a public venue such as a blog, and therefore are less likely to mask who we really are. Also, appearances pose less of a distraction in written communication, and when we meet a person we’ve already come to know, appearances seem less important. At least that’s my experience. Of course there are exceptions to this, and one must be cautious about such encounters. But on the whole my initial impressions of a person are often surprising close to what they are like when I meet them, if such impressions are based on written communication of some duration and depth.

  2. Susan

    Julia, at my parents’ 40th anniversary party, one of my mother’s close friends who I hadn’t seen since childhood asked me, “Do you still always have your nose in a book like when you were little?” Yes, that was my childhood 🙂 !

    As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day this week, I remember some of my earliest learning of WWII came from Cherry Ames books. Cherry and her friends arrived at nursing school during the war in book one (published in 1943), and upon graduating in book two, they all signed up to be Army nurses. The next books were Army Nurse, Chief Nurse, Flight Nurse, and Veterans Nurse. I still remember the shock I felt when a character was killed during a bombing — that did not normally happen in books for that age group, but it was something that was happening and that families were having to cope with at the time the books were being written.

    James, the seemingly-perpetual Jeopardy champion, has said that much of his knowledge has come from children’s books from libraries!

    And Julia, I hope you’re recuperated now — no setbacks, I hope?

    • Susan, this is so interesting! I had no idea the Cherry Ames books were truly historical novels. This comment busts the snobbish stereotypes about series books that used to be prevalent (but hopefully are not in play anymore, now that literacy in general is such a challenge). When I was a kid, public and school libraries did not even carry Nancy Drew or other series, because they were deemed “not literary enough.” 😦

      Thanks for sharing that fascinating article about James H. and his use of children’s books to prepare for Jeopardy! When I was working as a children’s librarian, I used to be surprised at how much I learned from reading or even skimming the nonfiction books (in some cases even the picture books, such as those by Ruth Heller or Gail Gibbons). I would always tell people of all ages not to overlook the children’s section. Often I could sense that adults just dismissed the whole idea. But to this day, I encourage people researching a topic to start with a good nonfiction book written for young people. And some public libraries now shelve the nonfiction books for young people in the same section as the adult books, interspersing them by call number rather than keeping two separate collections. I think that’s a great idea, given the varied intellectual levels or language skill levels that are found among readers of all ages. Having a variety of reading levels available is especially relevant when English is not the first language. Also, some children can read at adult level, and some adults (I include myself in this group) can stay more engaged and interested in a shorter, more accessible work.

      I appreciate your asking about my health. I would say there have been no setbacks whatsoever since I got out of the hospital. I’m mostly back to my regular diet, with a few omissions. I feel pretty good and I would say that I’m “back to normal,” whatever normal is! In other words, most of my physical aches and pains are common for a person of my age. When I start to feel sorry for myself I always thank God that my health is as good as it is.

      • Susan

        I’m relieved you’re back on track from that terrible episode and hospital stay ❤ .

        Yes, the earlier Cherry Ames books were written during the war so there is a lot of realism, adapted for the readers' ages. The later ones were more standard series book style, although you could still pick up some interesting info about medicine of the time! I have another stand-alone novel called "Cadet Nurse" that I got once at a church rummage sale; authors at that time seemed to be writing to encourage young girls/women go to into nursing as part of the war effort.

        One book that is overlooked, but I think really valuable as historical fiction, is that last book in the Anne of Green Gable series, Rilla of Ingleside, published in 1921 after the war. Anne's children are teenager/young adults and World War I is underway. Her sons go off to fight and her daughters are home assisting in the war efforts there. As you know the books are set in Canada so that is a bit of a change, but there are comments made about President Wilson and his decisions. The book still has the charm of the earlier ones but there is also the sobering and at times heartbreaking reality of life at the time.

        I still get some of the Jeopardy answers from info I gleaned from children's books, either ready by myself at that age or read to my children!

        • Susan, it has been decades since I have seen a Cherry Ames book, but if I see one at a thrift shop or antique store, I’ll try to pick it up for you. I read the first of the “Anne of Green Gables” books, but none of the later ones. I need to go back and re-visit that series. That is fascinating about the final book. My friend Amy is a great fan of the Anne books so she might know about that one.

          Adjacent to the area where Jeff is buried, in section 21 of Arlington, there is an entire section devoted to the nurses who served in wartime. It’s around the corner from his grave, going down the hill on the road to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. Many of the nurses are buried in that section, and there’s a beautiful statue honoring them. Sometimes we forget how many women were directly involved in the war efforts, even wars that took place many generations ago. One of my favorite inscriptions at the World War II monument is this quote from Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby: “WOMEN WHO STEPPED UP WERE MEASURED AS CITIZENS OF THE NATION, NOT AS WOMEN…THIS WAS A PEOPLE’S WAR, AND EVERYONE WAS IN IT.”

          • Susan

            Julia, I have not been to Arlington in so many years — too many years. I need to go back. (I was very sorry not to be able to go to Jeff’s funeral.)

            And thank you for the offer, but I finally have a full set of Cherry Ames books thanks to Ebay 🙂 .

            • Susan, sometime when I’m on my way up there, I’ll call and see if you want to go with me. Your house is on my way, so it would be easy to pick you up. And with my pass, we can drive right into the cemetery and right up to Jeff’s grave, and park there. From there it’s an easy walk to many of the most noteworthy places in Arlington. It’s all beautiful, as you know, and actually quite a nice place to go walking, if it’s not rainy or too hot or cold.

              I’m so glad you have the entire set of Cherry Ames! If I had a daughter, I would have tried to get all the Nancy Drew books, but that was never a sought-after item in my home. Although sometimes I thought I should have gotten them just for me. 🙂

              • Susan

                Julia, I would love to go with you sometime ❤ .

                • Great! I’ll try to give you a couple days’ notice next time I go. Often I will stop by when I’m on the way to do something else in that part of town (such as pick up or drop off at the airport), but it would be fun to set aside some time just to stroll around. I’ll try to pick a day when it’s COOLER! 🙂

  3. Carol hoyos

    Dear Julia,
    Yikes‼️ The picture posted this week spoke to me not as an enchanted forest but as a darkened backwoods in which to hide and take refuge. Otherwise as always your message is spot on. I’m a late comer to reading, the joys it can bring and the alternative to the “boob tube” it offers. 🥴 I just gave away my point of reference didn’t I? Thank you for your blog. I look forward every to it each Monday. Blessings to you. c

    • Carol, better late than never! It’s wonderful to discover reading in adulthood. For most of us, even if we loved reading as children, we need to re-discover it again after the overly busy years of career or child-rearing. I so appreciate your kind words about the blog. It makes me happy to think that you look forward to it. 🙂

  4. Jack

    The ubiquity of electronic books have so significantly broadened my reading horizons that I have effectively given up on tv as anything other than sporting entertainment. And it’s contagious. My wife, never a big reader, has resorted to reading to deal with the endless hours of silence she has had to “endure” as we discover, at least to my delight, that each moment we’re together doesn’t have to be filled with the noise of much of our conversation (she doesn’t read your blog, and mum’s the word!). I find the reading suggestions of my family and friends to be a delightful way to connect without connecting…through them I’ve found countless authors, among them Barbara Kingsolver, Wendell Berry, Abraham Verghese that I never would have found on my own. Give me some of your favorites please! Please!!

    • Jack, congratulations on “graduating” from television. My bias on that topic means that I probably should not say anything more. 🙂 As for reading suggestions, I can tell you that my favorite authors (C. S. Lewis, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens, in that order) are actually not the ones I read most now, as I finally realized that re-reading the same books over and over means there are other authors that I must leave unread. Having said that, if you have not read The Screwtape Letters or Mere Christianity (both by Lewis) or A Tale of Two Cities (by Dickens), I can heartily recommend all three books. Many essays by Lewis also are stellar, such as “The Weight of Glory” which was originally a speech he delivered at Oxford. If you are able to read novels with a decidedly female slant, Pride and Prejudice (Austen) is the often-imitated, never duplicated prototype of all (mostly inferior) romance novels to follow. As to more recent authors, for nonfiction, Malcolm Gladwell is one of my very favorite authors. He’s a contrarian who looks beneath the typical accepted wisdom that prevails in many areas of life. Moreover, he writes with respect, enthusiasm and genuine affection for all the subjects of his work. For short stories, my favorite is “For Esmé, with love and squalor” by J. D. Salinger; my second-favorite is probably “The conversion of the Jews” by Philip Roth. Flannery O’Connor’s stories are not for the squeamish, but are indelibly thought-provoking and challenging. For novels, the classics are hard to beat. George Orwell’s Animal Farm bears reading and re-reading and re-reading, never more than now. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov (which took me months to read) is worth whatever effort it takes to get into the story. But for lighter reading, you can’t beat Alexander McCall Smith’s series, particularly The Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, the Scotland Street series, and for dog lovers, the Corduroy Mansions series. McCall Smith’s style has been described as “deceptively simple” and I agree totally; his cumulative character development is quite impressive. More importantly, as these quotes capture, “McCall Smith’s novels are beautifully precise and psychologically acute.” (THE INDEPENDENT) and “These books, like their author, have charm. You cannot overstate the power of this— it’s the missing ingredient in contemporary fiction.” (THE GUARDIAN)

      OK, I could go on and on, but you get the idea…please don’t hesitate to ask your local librarian, who likely will start with a few well-chosen questions before telling you of titles others have enjoyed. Happy reading!!

  5. Harry Sims

    I love Popular Mechanics and Mechanics Illustrated.
    I have always loved the “funnies”.
    Asher Yatzar


    • Harry, I have never been much of a fan of the comics, though there were one or two I always enjoyed. But I do know that they are much more sophisticated than many non-readers of them may assume. As for Popular Mechanics and similar magazines, they may be over my head, but I’m glad someone is able to understand them! Where would we all be without their expertise?

      • Harry Sims

        The Funnies have been part of my “higher education” for eighty-three or so years now.

        • Harry, I think you have a lot of company. I’ve heard of many famous, gifted people who are quite loyal to the “funny pages” as we used to call them.

  6. Sheila Vann

    Hi Julia and Happy June Verandah! Bill and I went to Galveston, Texas three weeks ago only to return home with a dreaded travel bug diagnosed as Viral Upper Respiratory and we have decided it’s quite the price to pay for a week of family fun! So much for the doom and gloom but it’s really been dreadful. Hope you’re doing well and please know how often I’ve thought of you and Matt in my absence from Defeat Despair! Love crosses the miles…. She

    • Sheila, I must confess I had started to worry about you, as you have been the most consistent presence here from the very beginning! I was on the verge of contacting you to see if all was well. I’m so sorry to learn that you have been sick. I hope that you are on the mend. I’ve observed in recent years, from my own experiences and those of friends, that illness seems to hit us ever harder as we get older. Thanks so much for making the time and effort to be here. We are serving soothing Throat Coat and Echinacea teas on the Verandah today! Chicken soup optional. ❤ ❤ ❤

    • Sheila

      Sweet friend, never to worry you! Because of our bond I knew you were worried and felt terrible to add to your woes. We are always there for each other and I’ve always strived to be a positive in whatever small role I may play for you! I’m on the mend. Bill is facing a major back surgery in the near future to allow him a lifestyle more to our liking and expectations of GOLDEN! More later…. walking on sunshine, I promise! 💛

      • Sheila, I hope that Bill’s back surgery will be successful and make a big difference. I’ve heard from others who’ve endured back problems that the surgery can be a real game-changer. Thank you for remaining positive in all things (and I do mean ALL — just look at everything we’ve endured in the nearly SEVEN years this blog has been here). I am always cheered by those rays of sunshine you send my way. ❤

  7. Judy from Pennsylvania

    My first impulse was to think about book clubs and right away conclude that I don’t belong to any. But wait — I guess I do. I belong to 3 groups that meet in local churches to read and discuss guide books meant for small group study and discussion. Topics range from actual books in the Bible to ways of living more loving, wise and prayerful lives.

    Like most small groups that meet for a while, the members become well acquainted with one another’s background, struggles and joys. Close friendships are formed. We laugh together and share tears. We pray for one another.

    I hesitatingly joined my first group 15 years ago, not sure that I wanted any part of something as dry and stuffy as a “Bible study group”. There would probably be too much righteous pomposity, narrow mindedness, judgmental pronouncements. I was wrong, so wrong. Instead, I found compassionate hearts and a broad range of points of view, politely shared.

    I’ve made several friends and have come to feel a part of something much larger. Something that seems to be growing in many places. It is perhaps a movement to be more aware, more caring and to move beyond our own small circles of experiences. To grow, to connect, to love.

    • Judy, thanks so much for sharing these observations. My experience agrees completely with what you say here. I think the words “Bible study” have been stigmatized largely by those who don’t really understand what happens there. And as mentioned in my post, many churches host book groups that cover both Christian and secular titles.

      Being part of something much larger really does draw people together. As I look back on my life, almost all of the diversity of friends in my own life has resulted from people I met at church– not just my African-American and Hispanic and various immigrant friends from all over the world, but also people of various age, socioeconomic, and/or ability levels, going all the way back to my childhood friend with Down Syndrome whom I met at church (in those days, sadly, she was not allowed to go to the public school but had to attend a private school that her parents paid for). Shared faith, even when that faith varies considerably from person to person, is a powerful bond that has a synergistic effect in any book group. And of course, the Bible — actually a collection of 66 different books– has something fresh to say to each generation. Thanks again for sharing these thoughts here. I am so happy you took the time to describe these important experiences.

  8. Alan Malizia

    Julia, By my side is a small bookcase that should be much bigger. All the books I’ve read since retiring were in piles. The little book case was filled the day I bought it. Now there are books again in a pile but not on the floor but on top of the case. What I read pleases me for it fulfills me and often inspires me in my writing. What I seek in reading is illumination and validation. Now the hard part….put them into action.

    • Alan, that description of your bookcase sounds so familiar to me! When I’ve moved to places where I thought I’d have more room for my books, I always found that they seemed to multiply to (over)fill whatever space was available. But like you, I always felt that they were worth the space. I think you hit the nail on the head with those two words– illumination and validation. On some level, we seek and find both in our reading, whether nonfiction or fiction. And yes…the hardest part is definitely bringing those lessons into our daily lives.

  9. I’ve been away from blogging for a couple of days, so I’m late to the party. Ah, books – they are a marvelous way of excepting the clutches of time, location, existence. From ancient Egypt to an unknown planet or dimension – we are one with the story. The caveat for me, however, was that I stayed in the story, long after I had closed the book. So I transferred to non-fiction, for the most part, probably because of my studies, but simply because I needed to be in the present. However, I do from time to time return. This time it is via audio book, which is like someone reading a bedtime story. “Night Train to Lisbon” by Pascal Mercier. And yes, I am living the story. Another wonderful post with a brilliant discussion.

    • Thanks for telling me about that book! I had never heard of it. It took me a long time to realize it, but I too have gradually begun to read more nonfiction than fiction. I never stopped to ask myself why, but I think my reasons (to the extent that there are any) may be related to yours. At least half of my reading is done via unabridged audiobook. Again, I had not realized it, but it does appeal to me in the same way I used to love being read to as a very young child. I’ve heard historians say that many of the classics were actually written to be read aloud, due to the lower literacy rates in past centuries. But no matter how well we can read, many of us still LOVE to hear a storyteller! I am so impressed with the talent of the actors who help to produce these audiobooks. Talented storytellers, such as Lisette Lacat, can really bring the characters to life and add a whole new dimension to the books they narrate. Thanks so much for your kind words, and for being here!

  10. I sent in a comment, but alas it somehow got lost in transit. Always a joy to stop by and share in the conversation. Sending hugs from Canada.

    • That sometimes happens to me, and it drives me crazy. Having said that, I hope that your comment is one that got through without them letting you know it did. I just answered one from you that might be the missing comment. I hope so!

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