Talk about futility. I thought I had almost made it through the end of the year and holiday season with my addiction under control. As you probably realize from the title, I don’t shop or eat fruit cakes in excess – my addiction is acquiring books and, often, even reading them.
My bibliophilism is bad enough year-round, but the end of the year is particularly challenging because the media goes full blast about the year’s best books. Just flip open a magazine, the Sunday arts section of a newspaper, or log on to your computer’s home page this time of year and you’re confronted with lists of the year’s 10 or 20 best books. Popping into my inbox were at least 15 lists and reviews from folks at NPR, Amazon, Goodreads, the Huffington Post, etc.
Simply put, lists and book reviews are hard for me to ignore. Ever since my mother kickstarted my reading life with the likes of Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, Little Women, and Nancy Drew mysteries, I’ve been a seeker of good reads. And when my 17-year-old self stumbled on to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, a.k.a. the Great American Novel, my fate was sealed. Fitzgerald opened a portal to writing perfection and implanted me with an unquenchable hunger for more of the same. I still mourn his early demise.
So, generally, I peruse the lists and read reviews in equal parts, fear and desire. Desire, of course, to find the next book that will take my breath away, but fear that I will reach the tipping point of owning books that I’ll never have time to read in this lifetime.
(And before you can say, Kindle, Nook, or iPad, I’m afraid any device downloads would soon be forgotten with other distractions, i.e., emails, Facebook, games of Solitaire or the challenging Scrabble games with my friend, LMc, who keeps beating me!!)
But with bulging bookcases, I tried to turn a new leaf and exercise even more control this year, avoiding the best of 2014 lists, and adopting a new strategy with my biggest temptation: the Texas Book Festival in November that jumpstarts the end of year book craziness for me. I can resist browsing the tents with tables upon tables of books, but the presentations by the authors who come to talk about their latest book are so compelling, I usually purchase their books afterwards. This means I generally leave the fair with 4 or 5 books hoping that someday they will find their way from the bookshelf to my night table. (One of these days, Bob Edwards, I’m going to get to your Voice in the Box, which I’m dying to read – all appearances to the contrary.)
Accordingly, I decided to attend presentations by authors who interested me but whose books wouldn’t tempt me into a purchase for various reasons. I chose Martin Amis because despite his mastery of prose, I’ve read a couple of his books recently and didn’t feel any urgency for his latest about a WW II concentration camp from the German viewpoint. As another untempting choice, I opted to see Valerie Plame Wilson, who has segued from the real outed CIA agent, Valerie, in Fair Game, into co-author of a series about a fictional female CIA agent, Vanessa, in Burned, Blowback. She may be the next Robert Ludlum, but I have my doubts. Also, I chose to see Jon Meachum, who was hawking an adaptation for young readers of his recent biography of Thomas Jefferson, which I had recently “read” via audiobook from the public library.
This strategy worked pretty well with the first two speakers, but Jon Meachum, former editor in chief of Newsweek, contributing editor of Time, and Pulitzer Prize winner for his biography of Andrew Jackson, was another story.
As I said, I had already read Meachum’s book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. But as I listened to his presentation (so humorous and witty!), I realized I might have missed an important message. The recent trend in our public life, particularly among young people, Meachum explained, is to compartamentalize politics from the culture at large as if it were a dirty truth that most be kept separate from our everyday lives. But we all need to participate in the public arena, particularly young people, in order to shape our society in consonance with cultural ideals. Studying Jefferson, you realize that a 33-year-old man did not write the Declaration of Independence in a cultural vacuum. He was formed and informed by the significant cultural movements (e.g., the Enlightenment, Reformation, etc.) of the 17th and 18th centuries that were in common currency in the young America. In short, Meachum warns that our national life will suffer dire consequences unless young Americans participate in our democracy.
That’s all it took. I realized I needed to visit the book again, that it was too important for a quick listen. So, I found myself standing in the book signing tent in the shadow of the Capitol, rationalizing the purchase as a vote for democracy. It was just one book, after all. For my country, no less.
After my book fair success (all things being relative), the rest of November and December was touch and go, but mostly successful. I was actually adhering to my resolution. That is, until late December when I hit a fork in the road and picked the wrong path.
It was such an innocent mistake, but one I could have avoided if I had given it serious thought. But if anything is to blame, it’s Austin traffic. While driving, you see, I avoid negative and destructive thoughts about our mind-boggling traffic by listening to audio books, e.g., the Thomas Jefferson biography. Usually, I reserve books at the library from one of my wish lists, but at the time, none of my selections were yet available and I stopped by my library branch to browse among the shelves for something that looked appealing. Finding nothing among the fiction audiobook offerings, I ended up in the biography/autobiography section and saw one written by Pat Conroy called My Reading Life, which looked interesting.
(Here’s where I failed to think this through. Pat Conroy is a fabulous writer, one whose prose often borders on poetry. You might be familiar with his Beach Music, The Great Santini, or Prince of Tides. But his autobiography was written not so much about himself directly, but rather, about the influential people, teachers, books, and writers who influenced his desire to write and his appreciation of good writing. A recipe for disaster or what?)
When I wasn’t rapt by his stories, I was laughing with delight or wistful because I didn’t have a high school English teacher like his. And, Conroy, who read the audio book himself, had a mother like mine who loved books and made sure her children loved reading equally. He also had a bibliophilic love affair with Thomas Wolfe, much like mine with Fitzgerald. After Wolfe, he found a new hero to worship in poet (and author of Deliverance) James Dickey. Later, he reveled in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which he considers the greatest novel ever written (and a must-read for all world leaders contemplating war).
Although I wavered several times as I listened to the book, he had not shaken my resolve to avoid purchasing any new books. But, close to the end, he delivered the coup de grace to all my resolve with the following passage:
I cheer when a writer stops me in my tracks, forces me to go back and read a sentence again and again, and I find myself thunderstruck, grateful the way readers always are when a writer takes the time to put them on the floor. That’s what a good book does – it puts readers on their knees. It makes you want to believe in a world you just read about – the one that will make you feel different about the world you thought you lived in, the world that will never be the same.
Oh, Mr. Conroy, yes, yes, yes!! That’s what it’s about!
I saw, then, my folly. I could not be my bibliophilic self and repudiate my own quest to find those books and be, perhaps, thunderstruck with gratitude that a particular book existed for me to find and read. No way.
So, I finished listening to Conroy’s book. Then, I clicked open Amazon.com and ordered a copy of My Reading Life to incorporate and consult in my reading life. To acquaint myself with James Dickey’s poetry, I bought the volume that Conroy reads from every morning before starting to write. Similarly, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel will be arriving in my mail box soon.
But what to do about War and Peace? I’m embarrassed to say I’ve tried to read it many times since high school, but have never made much headway. I’ll have to develop some tactics for tackling it because if my reading soul mate is right, it is the greatest novel ever written –and, heaven knows, I’ll never make peace with myself until I’ve read it. So, I’m sorry to tell you tomes on my book shelves that you will just have to be patient a while longer. I’ve ordered some new books and I must read them first.
But I have a solution: I’ll just resolve to live a little longer!
Jeffy, this is so clever. Thanks for sharing.