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Book Review: The Starless Sea

Originally published: November 5, 2019

Author: Erin Morgenstern

Publisher: Anchor Books

Genre: Fantasy Fiction

Nominations: Goodreads Choice Awards Best Fantasy

If I were to give this book a one-sentence review, I’d say that it is “a love story to books and the worlds they create.” Throughout the narrative, the characters become conscious of the living and breathing, vital nature of stories, and how each other’s stories overlap and mingle into one another. It seems a bit meta to say this is a love story to the very idea of story, but it really is. I think the highest praise I could give it is that it makes the reader conscious of how important story is to our own day-to-day existence by encasing that concept inside a fantasy.

Not all stories speak to all listeners, but all listeners can find a story that does, somewhere, sometime. In one form or another.

In this story, Zachary Ezra Rollins finds himself in a library—literally. While flipping through an old book in his college library, he finds a story that portrays a scene from his childhood. Not something like what he experienced as a child, but the exact scene of a private childhood moment. This disturbing revelation leads him down a rabbit hole (also literally) that takes him from a posh New York hotel to a world that lives just below the one he knew before, and reconnects him with his past and parts of himself he didn’t know were lost.

As an English major, I spent a lot of time considering and discussing the importance of story to human development, but I don’t think that it’s something that comes up often for the average person. We go through our lives, from work to home to everything in between and back again, not really thinking about how story shapes us from moment to moment.

But stories are the lifeblood of everything we are as humans. We tell stories from our earliest formative days, in our nonsense babbles to our siblings, our parents, the dog, or anyone else who will indulge us. We lift the weight of the day off our chests by sharing our experiences with a spouse or parent when we get home from work. We resurrect a loved one by telling about an experience with them, sometimes ad nauseum until it becomes its own mantra of love for that person. We share stories about trips to the grocery store, watch stories on television, share stories in music and paintings. Stories live in the very things that sit on our counters or in our closet as we select what we wear for the day and remember when we last put that dress on or laced up those shoes.

Books just formalize and hold those stories for later, for more people, and for review. They’re nothing more, and nothing less, than the vessel which holds us together in our web of interconnected little lives.

This was the magic, for me, of the library or a bookstore when I walked in each time as a child. It was like I could feel the books themselves vibrating with the lives inside them. Touching each spine seemed to give me some sort of magical prescience that gave me the capacity to feel the stories unfolding inside of them, as if each were a world, spinning and working independently, waiting for me to crack open the cover, peer in like Pandora, and live there for a while.

Each of us has our own path, Mister Rawlins. Symbols are for interpretation, not definition.

While symbol is treated as something that is, at best, an “optional” aspect of understanding a story, and at worst, a completely frivolous imposition on the meaning of a work, this book shows that we all carry our own symbols in our lives. We have mementos that we hold, if not physically, then in our memory. A skeleton key may remind me of a key to the attic in my grandmother’s house. Clothespins may suddenly spark an intense memory of drying sheets on the line one summer afternoon at your aunt’s cabin. Morgenstern shows us that symbols aren’t just frivolous impositions on a story. Like the story itself, they are intrinsic markers of meaning in our lives.

Of course, in the end, “We are all stardust and stories.” We’re a multiplicity of stories that have made us who we are and build a web outward where our stories impact others as well. And, in the end, that’s why I opened a bookshop, too. It’s not enough for the stories to sit and swirl in their own universes on the shelf. They need to be opened. They need to be read. And I intend to help as many people as possible find a universe where they feel at home, even for a few hundred pages at a time.

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