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Books are Like Time Machines: Remembering Life Through Books

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Lily Dunn

Staff Writer

Lily Dunn is an avid reader and an intrepid explorer, and she has never met a cheese she didn't like. She lives with her husband in Hong Kong where she works a literacy teacher and goes hiking almost every weekend. You can read her musings on books, mental health, faith, and what it means to live wholeheartedly at or follow her travels and expat adventures at

Experts say our senses can strongly affect our memories. Particular songs or scents can trigger specific memories and evoke feelings you haven’t experienced in years. For me, books work the same way. Certain books are like time travel machines for me. Just thinking of them transports me back to where I was and what I was doing when I read them. The older I get, the more I find myself remembering my life through books.

I have yet to figure out a pattern for which books will have this effect on me. Sometimes it makes sense because the memory is of a book that became a lifelong favorite. Other times it’s a book that holds no particular significance for me. And sometimes it’s the place or the time that I read the book that is significant, but other times a book takes me back to an unremarkable time and place, like the chair I was curled up in reading while the kids I was babysitting were napping.

I have great nostalgia for many of my childhood books, but I distinctly remember reading Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted for the first time. I was 11 and I was spending the weekend with a friend and her family. Ella Enchanted was a gateway into the entire retold fairytale genre for me. For several years afterwards I claimed it as my favorite book. Whenever I think of it, I remember the weekend I spent reading while my poor friend begged me to play.

I listened to much of The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak on audio about six years ago while training for a marathon. The marathon itself was significant, but the training was mundane. It was a strange juxtaposition, listening to Death himself narrate a story of war and suffering and love while my legs churned through miles and miles of trails along the greenways of Raleigh, North Carolina. Whenever I see this book or even hear the title, I immediately picture the lush green trees and feel my tired legs and aching feet.

Just last summer, I was house-sitting for a family with a lovely pool that they allowed me to use. My husband was away and I was home by myself for about a month. During that time, I spent many of my late afternoons lounging by or in the pool reading Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl, sipping sparkling rose and laughing at loud at Reichl’s various personas and disguises as she sneaked her way around New York’s poshest restaurants trying not to be recognized as the New York Times food critic.

Sometimes my book/place memory makes me remember books that probably wouldn’t stand out in my mind otherwise. A few years ago I was living in South Korea. I had gone on a weekend trip to another city. While I waited for the train back home, I read The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith.  I don’t remember many details from the book except that it’s a YA romance. I don’t even remember what I did during my trip. What I do vividly remember is sitting in the train station reading that book on my kindle.

Of course, remembering my life through books makes perfect sense sometimes. Books I read around a significant occasion. On my honeymoon, my new husband and I took a Caribbean cruise during which I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven. (My husband tore a meniscus weeks before our wedding and did not have time to have it repaired until we got home. So there was more time for reading than you might imagine).

I also remember a lot of books that I read while traveling. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer) will always remind me of England’s Lake District, and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Benjamin Alire Sáenz) will bring me back to my brother-in-law’s wedding in Costa Rica. And while all of us Potter fans probably remember our experience reading the final installment of Harry Potter, my memory is especially vivid.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released while I was in Russia volunteering at a summer camp. After half of the camp (including me) contracted salmonella, Russia sent my poor dehydrated self home. Luckily, my layover in Heathrow was just long enough for me to snag HP from the airport bookstore. I spent the next seven hours devouring it and trying not to die before returning to American soil.

I have spent my life surrounded by books. They have been my teachers, my inspiration, my safe haven, and my friends. Considering the role reading has played in my life, remembering my life through books seems only natural. I can’t help but think I’m not alone in this.