As a general rule, the library should be a place of immense potential. For adventure. For mystery. For just about anything we find outside our particular realm of experience. The books we find there often become more than the lost relics of a time when a charger or USB port wasn’t necessary to embark on a literary journey. They become, in effect, a way to escape ourselves. They become old friends, comfortable yet strangely new with each subsequent read.
The children’s section of the library in the small town in which I grew up held limitless potential. At least for the first month, give or take a day or two. It was at that time that I realized I needed more. I was no longer satiated by the picture books and elementary chapter books. I wanted more. At the time, there was no such thing as Young Adult Literature (at least not where I lived). Teens and tweens had to find literary solace in the small spinning towers located just to the left of the large print picture books. They were dusty and squeaky from neglect and were generally avoided by most patrons. It was because of these towers, rather the literature contained therein, that I was forced to confront an eternal fact of life.
The towers held a particular series of books with which many people, I’m sure (I hope), are familiar. In these books, the reader is often given two courses of action at the end of a chapter. Upon choosing choice one, the reader is directed to a different page in the book. Choice two directs the reader to another page and another outcome. In this way, the reader is given some agency in the outcome of the story. The end result becomes the choice of the reader.
These books were fascinating to me. So often I would read a chapter book only to be disappointed by its outcome. The chance to dictate that outcome seemed logical and completely natural to my young mind. But I quickly discovered that endings are not always as precise as we’d like them to be. I learned that making a choice does not necessarily mean achieving my desired outcome. Therein lies the fact of life, something we all eventually grapple with for better or for worse:
For every decision we make, there is an opposite choice with a completely different outcome. We make the best decisions we can with the information we have and hope that whatever lies on the other side of it is precisely our aim. We soldier through life making these decisions, both large and small, and we deal with whatever fallout occurs. For the most part, we convince ourselves that we are happy with our decisions, or if not, we tell ourselves that the experience was a lesson learned and promise never to make the same mistakes again.
So how do we deal with the nagging voice lurking in the back of our minds which asks, “What if you’d chosen differently?”
The books at the library always took me twice as long to read as any others because I wanted to read them twice, once with my initial choice and once to see what I’d missed. I don’t remember being disappointed in any particular ending. And my child’s sensibilities were satisfied, knowing all possible outcomes, knowing the fate of my protagonist one way or another.
I haven’t seen those books for a long time. I’m not even sure they’re still available. But I think about them every time I’m forced to make an important decision. I wonder what lies on the other side of each decision, and I lament the fact that there are certain pages of life beyond which I cannot see the end results.
What would life have been like if I had chosen differently? Where would I be today? Who would I be today? Occasionally I ask myself these questions, not with regret but with childlike curiosity. But the truth of the matter is that life is a web of both possibilities and outcomes. The most we can hope for is that we fail to entangle ourselves beyond our capacity to continue weaving it.