10/08/2014 02:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Cat/Book Connection


It has always been about cats for me. Cats and books, books and cats. In my mind the two are inextricably linked, and in college I set about immersing myself in any and all cat-related literature. To this day, I still read and reread poems in which cats play a role. There are the old ones -- William Wordsworth's "The Kitten and the Falling Leaves," with "the kitten on the wall, sporting with the leaves that fall"; William Butler Yeats's "The Cat and the Moon," with the cat whose eyes change "from round to crescent, from crescent to round"; and John Keats's "To Mrs. Reynolds's Cat," where he describes its "velvet ears."

But I gravitate toward more contemporary poems about cats -- Gerald Stern's "Another Insane Devotion," in which he gives a stray half of his ham sandwich in a gesture of solidarity; William Carlos Williams's one about the cat who steps with such a sense of purpose into an empty flowerpot; Margaret Atwood's "February," with the cat "purring like a washboard"; Carl Sandburg's "Fog" with its "silent haunches" and "little cat feet"; Marge Piercy's "The Cat's Song," in which the cat says, "I will teach you to be still as an egg"; Wislawa Szymborska's "Cat in an Empty Apartment," which will break your heart with its hopeless hope; and Cesare Pavese's "The Cats Will Know," with its "sad smile you smile by yourself." Except, of course, she's not by herself--her cats are all around her.

Short stories, too, have provided opportunities to combine my two loves. My favorite, hands down, is Ernest Hemingway's "Cat in the Rain," which was supposedly inspired by his first wife, Hadley -- his "Paris wife." I became so taken with the story that, the summer after I graduated from college, I took a trip to Key West to visit Hemingway's house -- the one with the gardenias and the bright yellow shutters that he lived in with his second wife, Pauline, during the 1930s. Descendants of his cat, Snowball, still roamed the place, and several of them were polydactyl. This made sense given Hemingway's love of sailing. Polydactyl cats had long been thought to bring good luck at sea and, indeed, it was a ship's captain who had given the six-toed white one to Hemingway.

I spent an entire morning with Papa's polydactyl cats beside his saltwater pool, then toured his house where, atop a cabinet in his bedroom, I saw the brightly colored, flat-faced ceramic cat Pablo Picasso had given him. The two of them had become friends in Paris in the 1920s, and Picasso had gifted the statue to Hemingway because he knew how much the author liked cats.

Bibliophile. Ailurophile. I like books and cats. Lovers of the written word do seem naturally drawn to cats. Perhaps it's because reading is a solitary activity but feels less so when a cat's beside you.

From The Good Luck Cat: How a Cat Saved a Family and a Family Saved a Cat by Lissa Warren (Lyons Press, October 2014).