At lunch with three friends, the conversation turned to books. Sally proposed that what we read often comes to us serendipitously. Later, the four of us exchanged a string of emails. Sarah sent us an essay by Moyra Davey called “The Problem of Reading” which opens with the author’s confession that “what to read” is a “recurring dilemma” in her life. She pictures a woman moving about the house among shelves of books, many unread, picking up one for a few pages, then another.
“It is not just a question of which book will absorb her,” she writes, “but rather, which book, in a nearly cosmic sense, will choose her….”
I resonated with the dilemma. I’d just finished The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, a book that not only absorbed but chose me, because it was a gift from a loved one at Christmas and I always read my gifts. (It was on my list, mind you, because of the almost rapturous look on a writer friend’s face when she purchased it—she’s a Tartt fan.) Leaving The Goldfinch was like being back home in ordinary time after an exotic holiday of words. I too was wandering about, figuratively at least, wondering what to read next and finding nothing, it seemed, in spite of the great many unread books in this house, cheek to jowl with the read ones. What was I calling for? What was calling me?
Sally followed up by asking, “What is everyone reading and how did the book make its way into your life?”
A great question, which we then answered to one another. It made me think about the webs of relationships and influences we’re part of, and the diverse reasons we lean into certain books: friends’ recommendations, reviews, obligations (such as a course list, a book club, being on a book jury), or unexpected discoveries in bookstores or libraries. And the diverse curiosity, needs, or wishes within us that provoke a connection.
The small but often interesting stories of how books make their way into our lives add sidebars to the experiences of reading the books.
So, let me tell you about the stack of books that came into my life just yesterday. (See photo). A man who had a used bookstore in our city decided to get rid of them all—thousands!—in a massive garage sale this weekend. Every book for a dollar. Although I’m in down-sizing mode, I justified the hours I spent rifling through the boxes (the books had been in storage and most were still in boxes) by telling myself that I would take as many off my shelves as I added, that I was helping out the owner, and that a dollar a book is almost as good as free.
But that’s just subterfuge. I was there because it’s just plain fun, this kind of thing, and because you never know what will turn up that you can’t turn down. At least not at a dollar a book.
They’re not yet read, may never be read, but now they’re in the house. Just in case we’re calling each other.
The 1976 Eaton’s catalog (700 pages) was a happy find, for example, because my current writing project is partially set in the 70s and what better way to recall the way people dressed and decorated then. Two are books I read years ago (Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever and Jill Ker Conway’s The Road from Coorain) and enjoyed so much I’m delighted to have my own copies now, to re-read or provide a visual reminder or pass on someday. Some I took because I’ve read other titles by the authors (Munro, Moore, Saramago, Drabble). One came home with me because I like the natural history plates in it and want to stare at them further. The book on Tutankhamun, well, just curious. And so on.
If and when I read one or another of the books in this stack, that reading will converge with the memory of what drew me to it while I scrabbled about in boxes stuffed with books, trying not to bump into other searchers equally eager or crazy, convinced that if I kept looking I would surely find something just for me.
Lovely post. So many people are trying to understand “book discovery.” The truth is that many of us (I certainly include myself) find our books through an amazing, unpredictable, variety of ways.
I remember, however, that one of my grad school professors looked at me incredulously when he asked why I chose to review a particular book.
“It was on my shelf,” I answered. He nearly had a heart attack.
Thanks Shirley. Great story! I’ve been thinking a lot about “reading” the past months, also your question about “why” we read. Hoping to do a few more posts on the topic. (Also delighted at the wonderful success you’re having with Blush.)
I loved this post because it describes me so well:) I LOVE second hand book stores, garage sales, library book sales..anyplace I can find used books. It doesn’t matter that I have one bedroom dedicated entirely to books…many of which I have not read, I just keep buying them. After all, it’s a good deal and I was raised to be thrifty, and…I just love books. Having said that, I do go through periods when I read hardly at all but I regularly go and look through the books on my shelves and pick out a couple and “start” them. Thus I usually have quite a number “on the go”. It’s nice to know I have company in my habits.
Kindred spirits, indeed! Thanks.
I find picking a new book or author sometimes intimidating. Right now I’m playing it safe and going through a series from a favorite author. But I’d love to have a whole room for my books and just look at them and remember the adventures we’ve been on.
A room to remember reading adventures… I like it. I’m wondering if you keep a journal or list of books read. It’s fun to look back.
I like your statement “The small but often interesting stories of how books make their way into our lives add sidebars to the experiences of reading the books.” That is one reason why I have a personal attachment to each book in my library. Every one has a story of its own between its covers, but another story of how it came to be in my library, and the memory of that time of acquisition. Fascinating stuff!
And if you’re like me, that’s probably one reason it’s hard to move them out of the shelves, when the time comes!
Loved the post, Dora. I sometimes feel guilty because I have all these books I haven’t read yet. I buy a lot of books – makes not difference to me if new or used, just happens depending where I am when the urge hits. In South Africa I picked up a book because i was curious why the South African author had the last name of Goossen and what an amazing true story it was about Miss South Africa serving 18 years in a Thailand prison for “Drug Muling” which she was innocent of. So, I never know why or where a book will reach out and demand I purchase it.
Wonderful to hear from you Alice, and the book that “reached out” and demanded you purchase it! Great story.
I am an indiscriminate reader. I’ll burn through a schlocky beach novel while reading a serious tome of non-fiction. Bogus self-help shares space with memoir, fiction and travel.
We had to purge so many books when we down-sized to this apartment, but a serious pile still remains, demanding the last bits of precious shelf space.
The library and my e-reader helps somewhat.
I adore this question of how a book finds us…such a random, serendipitous and beautiful process.
Thanks for the smile…
Great to hear from you Colleen; what I know of you, “indisciminate” probably means adventurous and curiosity. The reasons we read…