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.
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.