When Emergency Strikes

If you were stranded alone on a deserted island what would you like to have with you?

A book, of course, the reader thinks, shaking her head in disbelief. What a question!

But when a wildfire threatens the reader’s neighborhood, are books the only valuables to be saved?

Over the fifteen years I’ve spent in California, from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Sierra, countless wildfires have destroyed entire areas. None had ever threatened my neighborhood.

But yesterday afternoon as the Cal Fire air tankers and helicopters hovered above the golden hills where my family lives, so close to my home that I almost caught the pilots’ faces, I thought my family would be required to evacuate.

Are books really the most precious to save? I kept wondering as I walked through our home, dragging suitcases and bags behind me.

Of course I wanted to take everything, from souvenirs to a piece of favorite furniture and even potted plants.

What do you pack if you have to evacuate your home and aren’t sure to find it safe and sound when you return?

Your photo albums and picture frames? Your daughter’s first spelling bee award or your son’s drum set? Your wedding dress or your favorite pair of boots? What about the silverware that comes from your grandmother? Or the artwork in your living room? And the ceramic plate with the handprint of each of your kids for Mother’s Day, should you leave it behind and instead pack your vinyl records?

But I kept returning to our books, which are present in every room. Shelved or stacked, read or in line to be read, how could I leave them behind?

What book is more important?

A collection of poems by Apollinaire or the first picture book your daughter read for the first time alone? What about the book about sharks that your son tucked in bed with him when he was six years old?

The folk tales book read aloud with each of the children when they were two years old or the American Heritage Dictionary?

The latest Pulitzer or Goncourt?

The complete oeuvre of Victor Hugo in the French Bibliothèque de la Pléiade?

A novel from Stephen King or Dan Brown because they are always much thicker than any other novel and would keep anyone good company?

What about the books offered for birthdays, anniversaries and celebrations? Or the out-of print books? The rare editions?

What book deserves to be saved from a wildfire?

In the end I wondered if I shouldn’t just leave them all. Why play favorites?

I looked for my Kindle, which I’ve never mistaken for my library and only use when I travel, and considered buying through Amazon the most beloved books I would not be able to pack. But we had lost power.

When I had prepared a change of clothes for all of us, toothpaste and the like of them, I boxed the picture frames and photo albums while my husband packed our preferred artwork.

The sky buzzed with the sound of air tankers and helicopters. Smoke spiraled in our backyard. Gusting winds blew through the canyon.

In a sudden impulse I threw in a big bag the books stacked on my night table, plus two children books – my kids’ favorites – and a guide to publishers, editors and literary agents – a friend’s loan.

The phone rang.

“We’ve got electricity!” my son yelled, jumping to his phone to update his friends.

I took a deep breath.

Unlike one family living down our street we haven’t lost our home and weren’t required to evacuate.

Firefighters worked all night long to secure the area. It was a close call and a chilling reminder that anything can spark a fire in California.

We live ephemeral lives and surround ourselves with objects that are much more than mere material acquisitions.

When emergency strikes, every one of them reminds us of our lives on this beautiful earth and choosing amongst them is very hard.

When it comes to books? Even harder.


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