Books in our Lives
I meet a person who claims never to have read a book.
“Even in school, I just faked it,” she says matter-of-factly. “You can guess that I didn’t do very well in English class. And I don’t read to my kids either, although they are good readers on their own. We do other stuff. Rides bikes. Go swimming. That kind of thing.”
She’s pretty and soft-spoken, warm—really nice. The kind of woman I could easily become friends with. In the brief span of our conversation, she reveals insights that show a keen understanding of life. And she’s unashamedly never read a book.
I ponder this. I try to calculate the number of hours I’ve spent reading, at least one or two nearly everyday since I learned how. Days and days of reading. It’s true that I wasn’t reading much during the extended three-day labour with my first child, and occasionally I have been too busy with work, but surely those times are balanced out by the many long afternoons I’ve spent curled around a great novel, or the late nights, awakened by one of my children and unable to fall back asleep, when I’ve crept to the sofa and fallen instead into the book of the moment, reading until dawn. It’s a lot of time I’ve spent reading, thousands and thousands of hours, I estimate.
At home, my son pulls a book out from the book shelf, waves it in the air and asks with a cheeky grin, “I wonder what I’ll find in this one?”
He’s referring to an old habit I have of sticking things into the book I happen to be reading. All the tiny flotsam of life—movie stubs, bus tickets, phone numbers written on scraps of paper, work messages—are hidden among the pages of my library. We find treasures too—postcards, photos, even old love letters. My husband jokes that one day when our memories are bad, we’ll simply call in a team of archaeologists to dig through the book shelf in order to reconstruct my life.
My son flips the pages. I catch a glimpse of the cover: Virginia Woolf’s Letters, from the early years it looks like. Out falls a postcard of Frida Kahlo leaning against a column with a big shawl covering her shoulders. From my sister, I recall, who had once travelled through Mexico.I’m loving it here, she wrote, the women are so passionate about life and so comfortable with who they are. The men, not so great. Oh, well. The years fall away. I hear her voice strong and clear, I’m loving it here. And somehow Frida Kahlo, my sister, Virginia Woolf and I are all jumbled up.
Certain books have been the backdrop to events in my life. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is forever linked to my first trip to New York as a teenager. I read the novel the week before my flight, wishing I wasn’t going as a tourist, daydreaming that, like the heroine of Plath’s novel, I had won a writing contest and was going to New York to be the guest editor of a magazine. Because of The Bell Jar, I was also prompted to visit the UN on that trip, where I would later work for many years. Funny when that happens.
Once, on a trip to the Caribbean prompted by my first real broken heart, I lugged Anna Karenina along from New York and turned the pages all alone under a palm tree. While the sun shone hot and bright, I sat in a bathing suit on a placid beach, turning page after page. The real me was far away, experiencing Russian blizzards and poor Anna’s journey from the heights of love to the her tragic last moments. I occasionally swam and once took a walk, otherwise I read and read and read. On my final day, turning the pages of the last sad chapter, I hadn’t noticed that the sun had nearly set.
A hotel attendant interrupted, “Senorita, excuse me, is everything alright?” I looked up, startled. I nearly answered, Da.
“Yes, everything’s fine.” He smiled tentatively and left.
I closed the book and watched the last whispers of light fade. If everything wasn’t yet fine, I knew it would be.
Another year when my finances and work commitments prevented me from having a holiday of any sort, I visited the South Pacific in The Lord of the Flies, Europe in The Good Soldier; and the Andes in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I read The Sheltering Sky on the bus to and from work. It must have been late autumn or winter, because I remember it was crisp and dark outside while the Moroccan sun blazed from the pages of Bowles’ wonderful story. The book itself felt warm in my hands.
On the first date with the man who was to later become my husband, another book figured. We met as prearranged at the Peacock Café on Greenwich Street in the West Village. I arrived first. He stumbled in a few minutes later, smiling and breathless, with a small parcel in his hand.
“I wanted to give you something. A bookstore was next to the flower shop, and I stood in front of them both wondering if I should get you flowers or a book. I decided to get you a book, and then I had to decide which one.”
I unwrapped it. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.
We ordered coffee and while we chatted, I kept thinking, “Hmmn. He gave me a book. He must understand.”
Years later, awaiting the birth of our third child, a girl, we thumbed through the book together looking for an exotic middle name. Zaira, Anastasia, Zenobia, Chloe, Esmeralda…. In the end, we chose none of these, but it made for an enjoyable afternoon. We were reminded too of our early time together, before Australia, before children, before we knew the other quite so well.
“Remember when…” one of us would start, bringing up another memory. Invisible Cities is a door to this earlier time. Opening the book takes us back there.
I collect the mail. Along with the usual bills, I have a new book to review. Something by the Pulitzer Prize winning critic Michael Dirda, calledBook by Book. On the inside jacket cover the book is described as a “meditation on the intersection between life and books”. I laugh out loud. How appropriate!
Book by Book is a slim volume, old-fashioned-looking and lovely to hold. Dirda’s premise is that we read not only for pleasure but also “to learn how to live.” He organises the material thematically around various aspects of our lives—youth, education, love, work, leisure, sprit—and gives a touchingly personal, idiosyncratic list of his favourites for each.
I read a couple of chapters at random. Dotted with quotations, recommendations, advice and philosophical insight, Dirda has looked over a long career as a book reviewer, a critic and, most importantly, as a reader and produced a delightful book that provokes and inspires. Some of the works he mentions, I’ve never read. I promise myself I will. Some of his choices, I disagree with; some of my favourites are omitted. And then I see what he’s aiming for: each of us could write a book like this and for each it would be completely different. Personal, individual. Because books intersect with our lives in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons. It’s not the same for any one of us.
I put Book by Book on the top of the towering stack at the edge of my desk. Deadlines loom. There’s research to do. I have a lot of reading and writing to get through this week.
“Please, please,” my young daughter begs. “Can’t we do something?”
I’ll be back, I say to myself, but for now I’m taking my kids for a bike ride.
First published in Arts Hub in 2007.