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60. Affairs of the Book

March 30, 2012

Books Frances Hodgson Burnett Tolstoy Dickens Kafka Austen McCaffrey Pullman Le Guin Pratchett Grisham

Here’s the story of me and books. It has all the prerequisites of a contemporary relationship: early infatuation, growing boredom, dalliance with other media, trauma, abandonment, heartbreak, and, hopefully, the slow rekindling of intimacy.

When I posted photographs of my dining room last week, Jilanne Hoffman commented on the overflowing bookshelves. She’s right: books-as-design-feature define this house, far more so then the  paint  colors or kitchen cabinets. I’ve always been surrounded by books: my parents are readers, all of the boyfriends were readers, and the Ex can’t go anywhere without a book. Fragile Blossom can’t quite read yet but all signs point toward book-worminess. Thinks-he’s-Justin-Bieber—well, he confuses me. Not that interested in books, and will also leave half a slice of birthday cake on his plate.

Alien spawn?

Or maybe he just shares my ambivalence. I used to read voraciously, and indiscriminately. As a child, I holed up in the library at recess compulsively reading and rereading Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon books, among other things. In high school, I spent rainy Saturdays with Mark Twain, Dorothy Sayers, Frank Herbert, and Shakespeare. College allowed less time for pleasure reading—but it was there I discovered Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, and, better late then never, Jane Austen. My two years in China allowed me to read and read like I never had before: Tolstoy, Kafka, Dickens, Cervantes, Grisham, anything I could get. Books – as a child, as a teenager, and as a foreigner, saved me.

When I started grad school, with so much assigned reading, my own choices veered light (normal, I think). I discovered the joy of reading young adult novels—something I don’t regret. I found Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – a series of books that easily makes my Top 10. I discovered Octavia Butler, and re-discovered Ursula Le Guin. I also re-read Ms. Austen. A lot.

When I finished my coursework, I began to flirt again with heavier fiction. I joined a book club, and read Nabokov’s Pale Fire (another Top 10), and then another book club and read Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country (another Top 10). But in each of these book clubs, I found myself reading the selected book about 20% of the time. Weird. Next…. I stopped being able to read any book that had been recommended to me.  Completely, totally, full stop. You say you liked Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale? Well that’s too bad, ’cause I kinda wanted to read that….. Books recommended to me had begun to feel like a kind of pressure for which I had no space. My family learned not to give me books as gifts, unless they were to be used as fancy doorstops or coasters. Books as décor.

And then…my life fell apart. At the height of the emotional trauma, I had no problem eating (unfortunately). But I couldn’t read. I couldn’t actually handle any kind of narrative tension at all: books, movies, TV, the Sunday comics. I sat on the couch. I played Tetris. Slowly, slowly, I began to read again…. but only murder mysteries, a genre that, aside from Ms. Sayers, I had somehow missed. For a year, I consumed P.D. James, Agatha Christie and Elizabeth George, among others. Oh the joys of the predictable plot arc. For every corpse, a resolution.

Today….I am re-building trust. I’ve returned to the sci-fi and fantasy novels wherein things usually end well. Terry Pratchett has provided some much needed laughs. I have setbacks, though. I just read Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Agea page-turner whose lame conclusion has sent me running back to P.D. James. More importantly, I still haven’t gotten back to the adult books—and you know I’m not referring to porn. What I mean is—I can’t read those books where something kind of like real life might actually happen. I know I need to take risks. I know I need to practice committing again to the complicated messiness of a literary relationship—committing to the kind of book where, you actually just don’t know what’s going to happen.

I do actually know this: when I find the courage to slide my eyes down that first, second and third page, when I take an interest in a new character, when I follow the complex line of a descriptive sentence, rewards await. Many, many years ago, I neared the end of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. I closed the book, and fell backward on to my childhood bed. Would the secret be revealed? Would Archibald Craven embrace his son? Would the locked garden, once so silent, burst forth in its clamor of riotous beauty? Like the children in the book, like the walls of the garden, I couldn’t contain myself. I started squealing and jumping on the bed (bear in mind that I was 10).

I’ll get there.

I will return to books.

When I’m ready.

“And then the moment came, the uncontrollable moment when the sounds forgot to hush themselves. The feet ran faster and faster—they were nearing the garden door—there was quick strong young breathing and a wild outbreak of laughing shows which could not be contained—and the door in the wall was flung wide open, the sheet of ivy swinging back, and a boy burst through it at full speed and, without seeing the outsider, dashed almost into his arms.”

—Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

22 Comments leave one →
  1. seniormama permalink
    March 30, 2012 6:58 pm

    I’m looking at the piles of books on my office bookshelves that I haven’t gotten around to yet, the books on the shelves of the bedroom that I just might want to read again someday, the stack of current reading on the floor next to the bed, the ones on the living room shelves that should really be organized and culled….then there are my husband’s books downstairs, including 3 bookshelves in a closet we can’t get to, and oh, yes, the business books stuck away in plastic boxes because I might, just might, need them again….I just put a Kindle on my new i-Pad and haven’t downloaded even one book. It’s just that I like living with piles of books. I feel comforted by the thought that I can hold a book in my hands, feel the pages between my fingers. As the song says, I’m old-fashioned….and that is okay by me. But we are planning a long trip, and maybe it’s getting to be time to try a download or two…..

    Thanks, Not Who, for a wonderful post!

  2. March 30, 2012 7:39 pm

    I, too, went through a dry season of nonreading. From the time I graduated with my MFA, when my son was 6 months old, to about a year ago, I read very little. Nearly 7 years. I was still buying books, but I rarely read one. Friends would ask me what I was reading, and I would look at them in exhaustion. I am a freelancer, so I spent my “free time” and energy writing or editing for clients. I did read zillions of picture books and then chapter books to my son. But in the past year I felt some intangible shift; I have become a voracious reader of adult literature again, and it is soooooo splendidly delicious. No longer feeling like a parched desert, the rains came and sent me into riotous bloom. It sounds like you are coming to the end of your dry season. Yes, you will get there. And it will be glorious!

    Pale Fire is one of my all time faves as well. And there are a couple by Faulkner that still affect my dreams when I reread them: Absalom!Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury. Thanks for some good recommendations. I’m looking forward to reading the Pullman series. And I’m thinking your miniature Bieber will come around at some point. My son can’t get enough of Erin Hunter’s Warrior Series.

    • March 31, 2012 1:48 pm

      Thanks for the inspiration. Now that I’ve come clean about my dry spell – sounds like lots of people have been through it. So good to hear. Mini-Bieiber just agreed to start Harry Potter (after years of refusing) – so we’ll see how that goes. Once he gets into a series – he tends to like it – but he still doesn’t want to just pick up a book- even one he likes, and read it on his own. Well – I know lots of perfectly acceptable adults like that too….

  3. Madeline permalink
    March 30, 2012 8:27 pm

    Try reading Julie Otsuka’s novels about internment and Japanese picture brides. They are lucidly written, beautifully evocative, and quite short.

    I also go through phases of wanting unchallenging reading–the New Yorker provides short but meaty fodder at such times.

    • March 31, 2012 1:45 pm

      Darn it Madeline, now I’m not going to be able read Julie Otsuka – remember the part about not being able to handle recommendations? Ha! Though actually i think i’m kind of recovering from that, thank goodness.

  4. March 30, 2012 10:58 pm

    You house looks like mine. Until I counted them just now, I had no idea I have 16 bookcases (almost 2500 books) jam packed. Sometimes, they are DOUBLE-rowed, half over the edge of the shelves. I understand everything you’ve said. My dry period happened quite some time ago but I’ve been back better than ever. Until now. I am taking some courses at the college and haven’t the proper time for proper reading. Reading in bed when I can’t keep my eyes open doesn’t do it for me. When there’s no time to read, I get cranky.

    The only reason I know how many I have is through my database. When a new book moves it, it gets ‘registered’ by title, author, origin (how we got together) and price. I have a hard time culling.

    I’ve seen some great titles in your post but am not promising to add to my already snaking list. I’m so far behind yet keep bringing new books home. Do you search out second-hand stores? I love the “chase” and fun of saving money. I have $100 in gift certificates but feel it’s crazy to go spend on new books—they cost so much. The hunt is also laden with adventure. At time with more than others.Nice to meet another bibliomaniac.

    • March 31, 2012 1:43 pm

      Yes – I very rarely buy a new book for myself – usually only if its a new book by an author I already love. I have been, recently, though, very commited to culling. Part of the great about used book stores is that they buy books BACK. Aha! With the prospect of moving ahead of me again – I think I will be culling again quite seriously. So glad to hear from the bibliomaniacs out there!

  5. heroldsroses permalink
    March 30, 2012 11:01 pm

    I often take long breaks from reading altogether and sometimes when life is really stressful I read romance novels. Recently though I found the Star Wars series, i think these will be my books to read when stressed!

    • March 31, 2012 1:41 pm

      Aha the Star Wars series – that’s a good idea! Thanks for the comment!

  6. March 31, 2012 4:59 am

    In “normal” times of my life, I enthusiastically devour, peruse, and am completely fulfilled by literary works. When reading bodies of art from foreign soil, their very presentation incites within me the desire to learn the language of the writer…just so I can ingest its intricacies more fully.

    However, while in crisis or trauma mode (as I have been this past year), I cannot read anything over a simple article from a magazine–and even that is relegated mostly to the captions under the photos. Apparently, my mind just does not have the capacity to take in the drama, conflict, excitement, love, nor detail of any other thing.

    When my margins are full, my margins are full…I so understand your post!

  7. March 31, 2012 6:15 am

    I am there on so many levels. We have a small bookroom with three seven foot shelves and two three foot shelves stacked with books two deep. My daughter has two three foot shelves in her room with books in her headboard and stacked on the floor because they will not fit on her shelves. My parents have two large legal bookcases with books two deep on most of the shelves. I have a bookcase in my room crammed with books. I have eight orange crates of books in my shed. My parents have at least six crates of books stored in their basement. I spent my childhood, teen years and young adulthood reading veratiously.

    I have been in a dry spell since I went back to school six years ago. My school reading took up every spare moment I had and my brain just couldn’t digest another word. I have started listening to the classics on my iPhone as I crochet in the evenings. I find it very satisfying. Slowly, I am rediscovering the joy of reading. I have missed it.

    • March 31, 2012 1:39 pm

      Maybe we should figure out a way to dispense of all furniture that is not bookshelves….bookshelf chairs? bookshelf tables? Thanks for the comment! i also love listening to books on tape – its very relaxing.

  8. April 1, 2012 3:14 am

    I love, love, love the picture of your dining room. Vive la books! I get all crazy and try to read at least one a week…with more and less success. Just read Gods Without Men…have you seen that one? AWESOME.

    • April 2, 2012 4:36 am

      Haven’t heard of it – thanks for the recommendation! Wait a minute….does this mean i can’t read it now…oh man….:)

  9. April 6, 2012 6:38 pm

    You name check so many of my favorite authors! I’ve also found that at times of great personal distress it can be hard to handle – I like how you describe it – the narrative tension. I’ve got a few “go to” books that I always turn to when that happens: Ms. McCaffrey’s dragons of course, but also Anne of Green Gables.

    If you haven’t read them before and are in the mood for some juvenile sci-fi/fantasy fiction, I highly recommend The Perilous Guard (Elizabeth Marie Pope) and The Blue Sword (Robin McKinley). I first picked them up when I was 11, and I revisit them often.

    The end of your blog was particularly touching…The Secret Garden…it really doesn’t get much better than that!

    • April 7, 2012 3:56 pm

      thanks for the recommendation! Anne of Green Gables was also a favorite of mine – need to return to it.

  10. April 10, 2012 1:49 am

    I adored this post! You sound a lot like me – I’ve been surrounded by books my entire life, my degree is in lit and I met my husband when we were both working in a bookstore. Also, Kid 1 is showing some ambivalence towards books (though he does like learning to read) and also refuses chocolate. I laughed out loud at the ‘alien spawn’ comment and showed the post to my husband. :)

    Now I want to go buy more bookshelves. We still have about 12 boxes of books in the basement.

  11. April 10, 2012 1:52 am

    PS – Have you read Carol Berg? She’s my favourite author.

    • April 11, 2012 4:23 pm

      Have not. Have not even heard of her. What genre? What do you like about her?

      • April 12, 2012 1:10 am

        She writes (fairly dark) epic fantasy. My favourite series by her are the Rai-Kirah series (Transformation, Revelation, Restoration), which was her first and the most recent series (Spirit Lens, Soul Mirror, Daemon Prism). Her writing is superb and her stories really pull you in. Transformation was the first book I’d ever read by her and I cried at the end of it because the ending was just that moving.

        (I’ve also met her since and she’s a wonderful lady. :) )

        http://www.sff.net/people/carolberg/

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  1. A personal world of books « Jennifer Snoek-Brown

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