By pleasant serendipity, the 50th book I finished reading so far this year is “The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (And Two Not-so-great Books) Saved My Life” by Andy Miller (who is one of the co-hosts of my beloved Backlisted Podcast).
A couple of weeks ago I read another entry in the same genre of Autobiographies Structured Around Books, “How to be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned From Reading Too Much” by Samantha Ellis. Each one is a kind of memoir cum coming-of-age narrative, wrapped around an investigation of the books the author has read—or has set out to read as a project of, as Miller calls it, “betterment”*. It’s exciting and a bit weird for me, to read about how other people react to books I myself love. There’s always a sense that these books really just belong to me, that their authors unwittingly wrote them just for me alone to understand and treasure, yet at the same time it’s so comforting to know that out there in the world are people who also derive great life affirmation from the same book. I think, ‘if only I met this person, we’d have so much to talk about!’. Which we probably actually wouldn’t.
*Much as I was into this book and its entire premise, the whiff of self-improvement in this word put me off (and surprised me a little coming from an English writer–I think of doing things because it will somehow benefit you in an improving manner, rather than just because you want to–or avoiding doing them just because they don’t appeal to you–is one of those dreadful American traits we inherit from our Puritan forebears; a plague of life-suck-age.)
Reading these memoirs may have something to do with starting this blog. Miller’s book in particular was terrific, in its relating of a mid-life reconnection with deep serious reading, and also in recounting a suburban childhood wreathed in books, a public library, and pop culture of benign effect and invigorating remembrance. I identified deeply with those chapters, which sent me back to memories of my own nurturing relationship in childhood with the Bay Shore-Brightwaters public library.
Though I have friends who read, right now I have only one with whom I get into what I’d call substantive conversations about books. We met at a reading group at The Center for Fiction (“The Ambassadors” by Henry James), and we’ve managed to read some of the same books at more or less the same time, and he has a wonderful aptitude for talking about a book not in terms of what he ‘liked’ but in a spirit of enquiry. He asks me questions and we dig into problems of the text, things we’re not sure we understood, aspects of language and character that we admire. I treasure this kind of talk, but it seldom comes up otherwise; whatever I’m reading is not what my other friends are reading, so we tend to exchange book reports rather than talk in depth about a book. I’ve gotten some good recommendations that way, but it doesn’t quite scratch that itch.
There’s always been something paradoxical for me in reading; a good book makes me feel connected to humanity in a way that real life seldom does; but reading is a solitary pleasure and I’m fundamentally a mild introvert and singleton who best experiences life cerebrally. (Hence that unshakeable belief that books I treasure are for me alone.)
What I’m reading now: I’ve been reading Denton Welch’s first book, “Maiden Voyage” for a while. Having done today with the Miller, I’ve got “Hotel Du Lac” by Anita Brookner on tap and am looking around for book number 3. I generally read 3 at once.
How do you read?