But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West. There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart.
I just wrote about this passage in a note on The Lord of the Rings, but right now this quote isn't about Tolkien. It's about me, and life, and reading. The day after I published that post I went down the Jersey Shore. Once I lived there, close enough to the sea to hear it through my bedroom window, late at night when the town lay sleeping and every sound but the waves on the beach, and the summer breeze tousling the sycamores, had been stilled. Nearly every summer of my life from the time I was eight until the time I was forty I spent beside the sea; and for years too short and too few I lived there year round. The sounds and smells and movements of the sea, the way it looks in every kind of light, winter or summer, day and night, in the clear or the black storm or the gray day's rain -- all of this sank deep into my heart long ago, where it lives with every word I have ever devoured about the sea, from Homer to Melville to Tolkien to Patrick O'Brian, from Odysseus weeping by the shore for Ithaca to Jack and Stephen playing duets in the cabin as they sail down the Med.
For me, dwelling beside the sea was like living in some other, more sacred realm, some other Eden, upon the nearer shores of Faerie. Every place I have ever lived since seems short a dimension, graceless, fallen. And though I have liked some of these places betters than others, all are to some degree lonely, and not home -- never home -- because they are not the sea and the shore. And at one point, sunk in a double sorrow, I so longed for home and an end to my unhappiness that, as I watched the final shot of the movie, The Perfect Storm, in which the last fisherman, soon to die, soars up the climbing slope of a gigantic wave, I thought it wouldn't be such a bad way to go.
But in a strange and literary and not entirely insane way that scene comforted me, because the solitude of the character reminded me of my own, and my longing for the sea drew me in, and the awareness that the author had to be able to imagine a scene and loneliness that no one ever witnessed. And that scene led me to think on others, on the whole sequence in Persuasion, that incomparable joy of a book, in which Anne Eliot, who lives immersed in such loneliness, visits the seaside at Lyme Regis, and suffers from her misapprehensions of Captain Wenwtorth's feelings for her; and that in turn led to that letter of hope and anguish he writes to her later in Bath.
So it's not that Sam Gamgee stood by the sea listening to the waves, as I did a couple of weeks ago. It's that someone who had this experience of one close enough to it that he could cast it into a form that I could recognize as something I felt and knew. What I felt and imagined, others did too. I could stand there on the shore, with the waves washing around my knees, and look at all the people I didn't know, and see their love of being there and the pleasure they took in it, and I could understand it entirely. I could watch the children play in the waves, as I did. Watch the children watched over by their fathers as mine watched over me. Watch people swim and fish and sun themselves, just as I did. I can look at these people and almost inhabit them because I have not forgotten what all these things are like, never will. And there was the sound of the waves sinking in, and the long shadowed light of the evening sun, and the gin breeze, all heady and full of sleep. And past and present, real and imagined, lived and read, were all pretty much one for a while there.
But for as long as they do last, books give us something else: Literature reminds us that we’re not alone on this planet. You’re not alone in this time. You’re not alone in this experience. And not only are you not alone in your city, your nation, your moment—you’re not alone in history. Sappho felt the way you feel. Or Shakespeare, or John Donne. We have this connection. And we are able to have a kind of conversation. The fragments we shore against our ruin—everything that we have read, whatever little fragments we retain, are part of our understanding of the world, the way we see the world, and our conversation that we have with ourselves and with the world.
Just like the waves, the books sink deep into my heart. For a long time I thought they allowed me to escape from this world. But this is untrue. What they do instead is release me from bondage. I remain in the world, but they ransom me.