“Ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke
It was on a crisp, late winter morning that I found myself pausing in the driver’s seat, keys in hand. I was meeting a friend for coffee, and my current read, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, was sitting on the passenger seat looking, with its worn and torn dust jacket, like a sad little puppy that doesn’t want to be left behind during a shopping excursion. To bring or not to bring? I’m not above reading at inappropriate moments, but really.
Of course I brought it with me. When deep into a great book, a need possesses me to carry it with me wherever I go, never to let it stray too far from my thoughts or person. Also, I was at a particularly compelling point in the narrative. What if the line was long or my friend was late? What if an asteroid hit the parking lot just exactly where I had parked my car? It’s best not to take any chances.
Later, with The Goldfinch tucked in my purse and parked on the seat next to me, I was explaining to my friend my strong conviction that books and reading can be galvanizing forces for community and connection. This point is beautifully illustrated on page four hundred sixty-three in The Goldfinch (hardcover edition): “[S]he had only to mention a recently read novel for me to grab it up hungrily, to be inside her thoughts, a sort of telepathy.”
At this moment in the story, Theo, the narrator, is referring to the woman he is in love with, but his idea could apply more broadly, to family and lovers and friends and complete strangers, including those we’ll never meet. The shared experience of a book is the shared experience of a world. When we hold it in our hands, we hold at least one commonality, a magnetic pull that prevents us from floating out and away and alone into the ether, a gravitational force rooting us to solid ground.
Not a minute later, a complete stranger who was approaching the café’s coffee line exclaimed with delight at The Goldfinch’s spine peeking out of my purse. Then she looked at me with a smile best described as radiant. A brief but enthusiastic exchange about the book’s merits ensued, with another person on line chiming in—How far along are you? It just gets better and better! I never wanted it to end! The Goldfinch!
“See what I mean?” I said to my friend.
Despite the illusion that reading is solitary, we readers are always in conversation—with books, of course, but also with other readers and critics, especially now. When I was growing up and becoming a reader, reading recommendations and conversations about books revolved around librarians, teachers, friends, and my parents or siblings. In other words, people who knew me reasonably well. Besides trusted recommendations, I chose books based on whether I liked how they looked and read them before knowing anything about them beyond the publisher’s description printed on the back cover. While the characters, places, and experiences that books connected me to stretched far beyond the boundaries of my real life, the readers to whom books connected me were part of my world in a very immediate sense.
Now, before ever laying eyes on a book (never mind cracking it open), I can go online and find hundreds, even thousands, of faceless, disembodied readers—about whom I know virtually nothing and who know nothing about me—critiquing and otherwise commenting on it. Besides volume, variety is also at my fingertips. The dialogue around books is nothing if not diverse in subject matter and approach: top five, seven, or ten lists, snarky jibes or encomia, serious long-form criticism or quick capsule reviews, quizzes to determine which literary character or book I am, and everything in between. And authors are part of the conversation too, not only through the traditional routes of author talks and readings but through social media, allowing me to connect and even converse with them from anywhere in the world. It can feel overwhelming, but it’s also exhilarating. So much time, thought, and creative energy, and it’s driven, at least in part, by passion for books and reading.
This passion is what I wanted to tap into by studying literature at the university level. I spent the summer before college fretting about what I would study, and what I would do with my life. For ideas, I turned to books (of course), notably the cheerily titled Careers for Bookworms & Other Literary Types. My brother seemed to think my way forward was clear. “You like to read,” he said. “Why don’t you major in English?”
I did like to read, though this strikes me as a kindly understatement. Actually, I hoovered books and would read anywhere, anytime, including, memorably, during my best friend’s eighth birthday party. I like to blame my reading obsession on my parents, not because both are prolific readers (though they are) but mostly because they did not allow me to watch television. Evenings would not find us gathered in front of the screen as a family, debating what to watch, which is understandable when one considers that my mother referred to TV as “the devil.”
We did own one for the utilitarian purpose of watching the nightly news and for my father, a devout New York Giants fan, to follow his favorite team’s exploits. But if my mother caught my siblings and me (transgression was best practiced in group form) watching television, she would holler, “Turn off the devil!” Except it sounded more like, “TURN OFF THE DEVIL!” Also, she said it in Greek. As hilarious as it was to provoke this outburst for its pure absurdity (can you imagine if it were actually possible to “turn off” the devil, just shut that sucker down with the flick of a switch?), the television was best left alone. This left me with unclaimed hours to fill. Theoretically, I could have occupied myself with any number of activities: sports (but I don’t like to sweat), piano (but my mother insisted I practice half an hour everyday, greatly reducing its appeal), drawing. Actually, I rather enjoyed drawing, but not as much as getting lost in books.
Right around first grade, I experienced a moment of existential crisis. I was standing outside my parents’s home listening to the kids who lived across the street playing in their front yard. There were seven of them, one boy, who was the oldest, and six girls. Though I adored my siblings, we were not close enough in age to be playmates, and as the youngest, I often felt like a bit of a hanger-on. Plus everyone was always shushing me. As I gazed up at the house where I lived, listening to the neighbors, thinking how fun it would be to have an in-house playmate (or six), it occurred to me: I am the only me there is. I can never know what it’s like to see what someone else sees or live anyone else’s life or think anyone else’s thoughts. Just mine. All I can ever be is me. This realization was a depressing blow, unanticipated cloud cover intruding on what had been a limitless blue horizon.
As fate would have it, I had recently discovered that the lines and squiggles sweeping across the pages of my schoolbooks were symbols for words that coalesced and bloomed, powered by my imagination, into characters, scenes, ideas, worlds. Books became my portal to new points of view, new places, new friends, new experiences. Though they were virtual, and thus not as ideal as, say, trading bodies with one of the kids across the street for a day (as Annabel and her mother trade bodies in Mary Rodgers’s Freaky Friday), books were my next best option. And I threw myself into reading, gobbling up books as if my life depended on it. And maybe in a sense it did. My favorite characters were friends and confidants who inspired, advised, and consoled me. With books, I was rarely lonely and never bored. When I could get away with it, I would read under the covers with a flashlight long past my bedtime. As a backup option, I created my own audiobooks by recording myself reading my favorite books so I could listen to them on my headphones. I even sketched pencil drawings of my favorite characters and wrote lost chapters featuring me as the plucky friend. So yes, you could say I liked reading.
Armed with my brother’s suggestion and my trusty copy of Careers for Bookworms (now in its fourth edition), I earned a M.A. in English Literature and a Ph.D. in English Education, with an emphasis in writing and went on to teach writing, literature, and communication. By the time I graduated and was well into my teaching career, I discovered another outlet for sharing my passion for building community through reading and books: book blogs. Blogging about books introduced me to a new world of book lovers and connected me with passionate readers across the globe. Closer to home, that experience segued into writing about books and authors for a local news website, and eventually, I founded Books, Ink at HamletHub, a website devoted to sharing local happenings for book lovers in Connecticut.
What You Will Find in This Book
“What is literature?” The professor who would eventually become my dissertation advisor posed this question in one of my early doctoral seminars, a course on theories of reading. We graduate students were seated in chairs forming a cozy little circle, perched at the edges of our seats, eager to share our clever, insightful responses.
The characters seem like real people.
The reader misses them after the book is over.
The narrative is complex.
The story stays with you.
The language is beautiful.
And so on and so on.
“But who gets to decide whether a book possesses these qualities?” our professor further inquired. His question was followed by a lengthy pause, throat clearing, general fidgeting, and possibly a tumbleweed or three. We had, it seemed, been led down a garden path to ruin. He answered his own question then: “If a reader has these experiences with a book, then that book is literature for him or her.”
Given my populist sensibilities, I liked his answer very much. At the same time, I understand why it makes some people uncomfortable: It suggests that standards and categories don’t matter. But I don’t believe this was my professor’s point. I believe he was getting at something more difficult and more humane: Standards matter, but people matter more. Many or most of us would probably acknowledge that books exist along a continuum of bad to great. It’s just that absolute literary value isn’t always relevant to a reader, unless that reader happens to be creating educational curricula or sitting on a prize committee panel.
For readers—and here, I’m referring to those of us who choose to spend time with books for pleasure and/or enrichment—what matters is the experience of a book, whether that book blossoms in our imaginations, whether we connect with the characters, whether the events in the story resonate, inspiring us to think and feel. Making such an experience possible requires considerable effort and skill on the parts of both author and reader. But here’s a shocker: We will never, ever (unto eternity) all agree on which books best succeed at making these experiences possible, no matter how discerning the reader or brilliant the text.
When I set out to write about the books I have read and valued, I wanted to capture both the enjoyment and enrichment that attend reading books of all kinds and for various reasons. These happen when we take the time to listen to what a book has to tell us—whether it’s a quick read, a compelling classic, or a big book that challenges our modern-day limited attention spans but promises richness and a depth of experience. I wanted to acknowledge the personal nature of book preferences and to write about books in a way that seeks to enlarge and enrich rather than merely assess. I also wanted to present the books spoiler free (with one notable exception, about which you will be duly warned).
I’ve organized the eighteen chapters as follows: Chapter One lays out my beliefs and values about reading, the ones that shape my book preferences and assessments. Chapters Two through Sixteen are organized around themes and subjects that I find myself returning to again and again. Each chapter begins with my reflections (as a reader and human) on the significance of its theme and/or subject and includes my discussion of ten related reads. The books I discuss aren’t meant to represent a definitive list of What To Read. They’re books I’ve read in recent years and valued, books that resonated and stayed with me, and books that reward generous readers. In these reflections and discussions, I hope readers will discover new books or shared experiences of familiar ones and inspiration for reflecting on the preoccupations that shape and have been shaped by their favorite reads. In Chapters Seventeen and Eighteen, I explore the joys of living a bookish life, even when we’re not actually reading a book.