60. Affairs of the Book
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.
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 Age—a 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
- Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James (literarytiger.wordpress.com)
- Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James (housefullofbookworms.com)
- Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination, by Juliette Wells – A Review (austenprose.com)
- I always knew Wickham was bad news – “Death Comes to Pemberley” by P.D. James (readingthroughthebs.wordpress.com)
- Celebrating Edith Wharton (nochargebookbunch.com)