I’m a book addict.
When events overwhelm me, I reach for a book. Losing myself in a story is the best way I know to cope with the disappointments in life.
I’ve been reading a lot lately. Increasingly, here in America, reading feels like a revolutionary act.
Not to brag, but I can and have read a book a day. Not real thin ones, either. I sort of inhale without chewing that first time through. If it’s a good one, I’ll re-read it. Sometimes right away. Other times, not.
I’ve missed some things that way, but I can’t help it. A compelling story grabs me and I’ve got to find out what happens next.
All of which is kind of preamble to confessing that I’ve joined a book club.
I’m not real big on joining anything, ever. But I’ve admitted to being a bit lonely here in the deeply red state of Missouri, and I love books so much that I’m willing to gamble that other people who love books will not be total assholes.
And so far, it’s going okay. The club meets once a month, for one hour. It’s all white, all women over the age of 50, about 10 or 11 of us. The list is selected in advance. It’s generated by the club members, each one recommending one or two books. I’ve read everything I’m interested in reading from their lists of last year and this year.
I’m already obsessing over how the hell I’m going to recommend one book. One book! That’s torture! There are so many!
And I take the act of recommending a book or an author extremely seriously. To admit to loving a book is a revealing act. It tells what moves you, what makes you think. And there is a jealousy in it as well, because when I read a great book, or a great sentence, I’m jealous of that skill/talent. I only recommend books (or authors) I really love. And, I try to match a book to the reader, if possible.
I was recently introduced to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Series. Book one was on my book club’s list for last year. Book two is this month’s read. Well, there is no way in hell that an obsessive compulsive like myself can read this year’s without reading last year’s first. And I found the books sufficiently compelling that I ordered the whole thing. It’s ferocious story telling. Not for the faint of heart, and not because of the violence, of which there is some, but because of the truth telling about women’s friendships, and humanity in general. The series covers a friendship over five or six decades, and everything that is life is in there. It was disappointing, but not surprising, that none of the other book club members were sufficiently interested in reading the series, and that most didn’t like the second book. I don’t fit in anywhere anymore.
The pressure of selecting one book sends me down to my library. The library is arranged so that the non-fiction is on one side of the room, and my fiction is on the other, alphabetically by author. The non-fiction is grouped by subject matter. So, for instance, all American history is on one shelf, despite being by different authors. A Sorrow in our Heart, the story of Tecumseh, is near Washington, for instance.
I’ve got a raft of books about Katrina, all by different authors. A section on plagues and viruses. I get into a subject and read to satiation, I guess. Another large section on the “war on drugs.” More on evolution and the paleolithic. Nature is another big section. Then there are memoirs, biographies and autobiographies.
Decision number one, then, is fiction or non-fiction? I have no idea how to decide that. Although, it does seem that the non-fiction tends to be weightier, thicker, more pages than fiction. And I don’t want people to hate me for “making” them read a big ass book. Because, as I’ve learned, not everyone reads or wants to read a book a day. I’m weird and I know it.
If I just focus on fiction, it’s worse. There are certain authors I love, just love everything they’ve written. How to select one? I love them for different reasons, none more important than another.
Maybe what I should do is to count how many books I have by one author and pick my favorite book by that writer. That would make Larry McMurtry the winner (21),* and that would make Lonesome Dove my pick for the club. But jeez, Lonesome Dove is 945 pages. I’m trying to make a friend, not enemies.
Genre comes up in our club discussions. Several of us have said that we don’t like science fiction or fantasy. Few of us, even those with grandkids, have read any of the Harry Potter books. I read Tolkien in my teens and never felt the need to re-visit. Comic books I left behind even earlier. Frankenstein is on our list. I’ve never read it, don’t really want to, and haven’t decided if I will or not.
I used to read lots of mysteries, but I get bored with formulaic writing. That happens faster with some authors than others, and hasn’t happened yet with a few (Minette Walters, I’m talking about you).
I’ve read romances, but again, the formulaic conventions get old. Never got into westerns, except for Larry McMurtry.
Though reading needs to be encouraged, it is surprising that some people essentially read the same book, over and over again. That’s how formulaic some of these genres can get, and is a very good reason to expand beyond genre.
Authors that surprise me are the ones I go back to again and again. Not just with plot, but with insight or humor or a concept or a character; something that stays with me after I’ve finished a book. Most of the writers in my fiction library are white, probably mostly male, but I enjoy the hell out of writers who take me inside of another culture, time, or place. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel an urge to travel. A good book can take me to a place, share it’s history, it’s culture, it’s people, with a depth and insight no tourist could approach.
But as I’ve said previously, I learned that I’m a middle brow from Susan Jacoby’s book, The Age of American Unreason. So while my reading tastes may not be mass market, I’m hardly an intellectual. There are a whole bunch of dead white guys I’ve never read, and probably never will.
When I’m between books, I get kinda like an addict needing a fix…restless, short tempered, bitchy. I’m between books, right now. Just finished Sherman Alexie’s new one, called You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. It was beautiful.
You’d think, with my impatience, that ebooks would be right up my alley. You would be wrong about that, and I can’t even tell you why, exactly. I have a Kindle, and just didn’t like it…didn’t like having to charge it, didn’t like how it felt in my hands…it felt so wrong. Fortunately, the plastic casing over the wiring disintegrated, and now I have an excuse to not use it anymore.
So, as a reader, I’m still stunned to find myself living in a country that is actively devaluing knowledge, education, learning, and where alternative facts, fake news, science denial, and ignorance of history is preferable to reality. The Dark Ages were awful enough that I’m amazed people want to repeat them.
Dictators share at least one characteristic in common: They want to control what people know, what they think, and what they say. There is a good reason that Mao Tse Tung and his regime burned books by the thousands, closed universities, and otherwise discouraged independent thought. He said, “the more books you read, the more stupid you become.”
I will take that as a compliment.
*Not everything he’s written, just what I own.