The Great Book Schlep

It’s summer so I must have moved again, right? That great wind from the West is a thousand cardboard boxes getting recycled. This is the IMG_1464fourth time in ten years I’ve packed up a house and unpacked it again. Sometimes I do the packing, sometimes, like this time, I have someone else pack for me. The one thing I always pack, and unpack, myself is my books.

The first time I moved in the 10 year span I did a massive clear-out of books. I had piles upon piles, books from contests I’d judged, books I’d read and loved, books I’d bought and never read, books someone else in the household had read and I’d never actually seen before throwing them into a box.FullSizeRender 3

My only regret about that move is that my husband made me sell the massive LIFE magazine collection I had lucked into when the local library went digital. Because I write (sometimes) about the late-thirties and World War 2 years I had scored most of the 1930s and 1940s issues of the large format, fully illustrated, iconic weekly. I tucked just one away, for a book I still haven’t written: the first issue of LIFE after Pearl IMG_1479Harbor. (I have written a short story about it: SNOW TRAIN.) I also still have the first issue of The New Yorker after 9/11, the black cover issue.

Many, many copies of LIFE magazine have survived (just check on Ebay) so it’s not like I can’t track down a particular issue if I wanted to. But leafing through those issues is just golden. My parents subscribed to LIFE when I was growing up and I devoured it. Some issues are full of silly stuff like swimsuit models and college pranks. This issue contains society photos of a VMI formal of all things. But they illustrate what life was like in those times the same way, say, a week on Facebook does today. (There are also, unfortunately, scads of examples of racism and prejudice.)

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Christmas 1941 still arrived, socks and all

So, on this move, I put my lonely copy of LIFE magazine on a shelf with lots of other books that have been schlepped hither and yon over the years. It’s funny the memories that come back when you touch and shelve a book, finding its subject mates or author mates. I will remember buying a book for instance and never getting around to reading it. Or more likely wanting very much to read it again. I made a little pile for myself as I sorted. Not too many books: that just becomes another collection in a different place.


FullSizeRender 12My husband has a large collection of books on Zen Buddhism and meditation. While I have done my share of meditating I have never been able to sustain enough interest to read an entire book about it. So I put one book on the pile. If that one doesn’t take, there are plenty of others.

I also want to re-read this scholarly book about Jane Austen. [Claudia Johnson’s Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel.] I have been fascinated with Austen since I read Pride and Prejudice in high school. I re-read the books, trying to find clues to why she is so approachable and sly, how she builds characters so effortlessly. And Rich in Love? I have such vivid memories of reading that novel [diminished somewhat by the movie] when I first started seriously writing. I burst into tears as I finished it, knowing I would never write a book so lovely, simple, and moving. A must re-read.

And lastly there is a new book, All The Light I Cannot See, given to me by my friend, Helen, who read it for a book club I used to attend with her. The sorrows of moving, leaving friends and book clubs behind. But I still have the books, my always friends.

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Rereading your favorite novel, love or leave it?

They say that every time you read a book it’s a different book, because you are different. If you read a book when you’re twelve you bring one set of experiences, opinions, and influences to that reading. Read it again at twenty-one, it’s a new book because you’ve survived to your majority, studied, read, and maybe even written something yourself. So if you keep reading that book, at thirty, forty, fifty, does it keep changing for you?

I submit that it is possible to read a book too many times. Unless you are dissecting it for the purpose of figuring out its structure you can bore yourself. There are so many books in the world! Read a new one! Only my most favorite novels hold up time after time, offering up nuggets of humor and wisdom again. My favorite novel is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen precisely because there is so much left out of it. I read it first at seventeen. I reread it looking for more, sure there is something I missed. Most novels, even ones that I absolutely adored, stories that make me gasp and cry, leave it all on the page. Because, frankly, that’s where it’s at, writing-wise.

I’ve been thinking about reader reactions, and rereading, since reading this piece in the Guardian. Authors are generally voracious readers and sometimes reread novels out of necessity (nothing else in the house) or to study the way an admired author got the job done. Poetry, of course, and classics like Shakespeare, Doestoevsky, and Jane Austen are definite rereads. The classics hold up because they are dense and enjoyable and fulfill a reader’s need for philosophy of living, human emotion, or just plain excitement.

As you can see from the article authors have a diverse list of favorites that are often very personal. Reading is like that. Have you ever given someone a book (that they didn’t request, written by someone they’ve never read) and wondered why they never read it? You loved it so they should too. But like jewelry and perfume, novels are an individual taste. Often as readers we don’t know exactly why some stories resonate, holding us captive and nestling deep in our subconscious, while famous novels loved by millions leave us cold. It doesn’t matter what you read as long as you’re reading for pleasure (unless you are in a Nazi book club. If so, my condolences.) Pick a novel, new or old, fresh to you or as familiar and comforting as an old sweater, and read it. Enjoying reading is one of the most basic, simple pleasures of life.

Reader reactions fascinate me. As a writer you can only write the book you can write, and hope that it appeals to someone (or many someones.) In the age of online reviews anyone who reads a book can offer his or her opinion of it to the world, uncensored and often poorly spelled. It’s sort of like fan mail. One of my novels now has nearly 40 reviews on Amazon (a consequence of a giveaway campaign last summer) and as much as I hate the bad reviews and cherish the good ones I find the whole thing amusing. How can one reader write: “something for everyone, intrique, romance, murder and all tied up neatly together,” and another have the opposite reaction: “too much nonsense in it. It took me forever to read as I was very bored with parts”? Well, because one might be fifteen, the other seventy. One might be used to reading romance novels, another might be into ‘Twilight.’ You never know. I couldn’t have written this book when I was twenty (Blackbird Fly, by the way, written when I was 50ish. I couldn’t have written any novel at 20 but I loved my journalism classes.)

I bring to the table my own experiences, just as the reader does. I love that I can hear what they think. It makes writing a lot less lonely.