Reading in Public
I'm such a sucker for New Year's resolutions that I practice the ritual every year, every month, sometimes every Monday. Perhaps writers are particularly prone to the illusion of a fresh page, a life without mistakes. But the reality is that resolutions usually provide nothing more than another opportunity to fail. Over the past 20 years, the only successful change I have made in my life is learning to exercise regularly. And I'm so obsessive about this habit that it feels vaguely unhealthy, as if I've taken something very good and made it very bad.
I spent the final weeks of December asking others their resolutions. The question didn't seem to engage anyone, but I kept asking. Meanwhile, I was revising my own list in my head. Should I volunteer at a local soup kitchen, or take up a new activity, such as fencing? Should I try to freelance more in 2003, or concentrate on finding a home for a story that I wasn't allowed to write while at the Baltimore Sun? After several days of contemplation, I decided to try a resolution I had attempted in a previous year, only to fail miserably. Tentatively, I tried it out on a friend:
"I'm not going to buy books in 2003, except ones written by friends, or in situations where etiquette demands it."
My friend replied: "I'm going to date Jennifer Lopez in 2003."
"Well," I said, always eager to enable another's dreams, "that's not outside the realm of possibility. Her first marriage lasted 10 months, her second marriage lasted eight months, so if her marital fortunes are based on an arithmetic progression, she could burn through this Ben Affleck thing in six months, leaving her free at the tail-end of 2003."
"I'm going to date Jennifer Lopez, Uma Thurman and Tea Leoni in 2003," my friend recalculated.
"Now that seems unlikely."
Ah, but like any hopeful addict, I ended 2002 on a binge, gathering up armfuls of books at the Ivy Bookshop, an independent bookstore in North Baltimore. I bought The Lovely Bones, a book I had been denying myself for complicated reasons; The Hours, because I wanted to read it before I saw the movie; Austerlitz, because I remember reading W.A. Sebald's obituary; Why Read the Classics by Italo Calvino, because it was by Italo Calvino; Snow Angels, by Stewart O'Nan, because I think he's one of the most versatile writers working today; The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, because I'm not embarrassed to be late; and a half-dozen books that I need as research for the Tess novel I plan to start this month, including Boychiks in the Hood, This is my God by Herman Wouk, and Fables of a Jewish Aesop.
Why give up buying books? Because I own too many that I have yet to read. It feels wasteful, dog-in-the mangerish, even sinful. As I write this, I sit surrounded by bookshelves, the equivalent of six Ikea Billy shelves (in the beech veneer), laden with paperbacks I bought thinking I might one day wish to read them. I also live in an area that has two fine-if-different library systems -- the Enoch Pratt, in Baltimore City, and the Baltimore County Public Library system . Between the two of them, I can easily find any new volume I want, if I can just learn to be patient.
One of my Goucher students this fall wrote about a library in the home of an Italian immigrant, as seen through the eyes of her more modern daughter. The daughter worried about the physical properties of the books, which were exposed to light. The mother cared only for what was in the books; once she had read them, she didn't care what happened to them.
My memory is too porous to hold a library in my head, but I loved the idea. In that spirit, I'm going to work my way through the books I own -- and let go of some, at least physically. I plan to take a lot of books to Baltimore's much-publicized Book Thing, not because I don't like them, but because I do.
One dirty little secret of the writing life is that there are times when reading is difficult. At least, it's my dirty little secret, and I've found a writer or two who will admit to the same fallow cycles, when no book seems to satisfy and evening finds one numb on the sofa, clicking around the cable dial. Considering this, I refined my resolution further, in this e-mail to a good friend:
Another resolution occurs to me: Read more. Read randomly, with no plan or purpose other than pleasure. Reclaim reading for the passion it has always been. Put down books that fail to engage, pick up books the way I might choose chocolates from a box, and savor them accordingly. Or spit them out, if they prove to have something foul in the middle.
Meanwhile, it's Day 3 of the New Year, and I haven't bought a book yet. So far, I have read True Enough, by Stephen McCauley and am halfway through The Hours. The Lovely Bones is in the on-deck circle. In the spirit of this resolution, I'll keep a running list here of books I've read; the only question is whether I'll be honest enough to confess to my odd re-reading habits, which center on favorites from my childhood -- I spent a pleasant hour with Anne Emery's Campus Melody this week -- and novels that I read in my 20s and return to again and again. (This list includes several books by Philip Roth, John Updike's Rabbit is Rich, Marjorie Morningstar, much of Alice Adams, some of Gail Godwin, early John Irving, The Mind-Body Problem, the Tales of the City books -- actually, there's a lot I love to re-read.) I also might omit crime fiction from my list because I don't want people to know what I'm not reading -- and what I haven't read -- in my own genre. I feel I still haven't recovered from admitting that I never read Murder on the Orient Express.
My resolution will be tested only a week into the New Year, when Richard Price's new novel, Samaritan, goes on sale Jan. 7th. I better put my name on the reserve list at the Pratt -- or befriend him fast.
P.S. A friend has pointed out that it's counter-intuitive for a writer to
urge people not to buy books. Ah, but I plan to continue buying books,
perhaps more books than ever. I just don't plan to buy them for _myself_. I
have a copy of "52 McG's," a compiliation of obituaries, on order right now,
for a family member who loves obituaries as much as I do.
Of course, it would be terribly, terribly sleazy to buy books for others and
then read them before I passed them on. Which doesn't mean I won't do it,
just that I'll feel guilty about it.