“Why on earth are you reading the Berenstain Bears?” Before anyone takes offense, I’d like to clarify something. I have no problem with the Berenstain Bear books; they’re great – for my 4 year old. The reader in question was Caitlin – 9 years old, with a high school reading level. The kid who breezed through Tolkien sat curled on her bed reading The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room.
“I don’t have anything else to read.” Her bookcase consistently overflows onto the floor. I picked up a paperback from under the dollhouse. A Newberry Medal blazed from the cover.
“You haven’t read Island of the Blue Dolphins yet.” I looked around. “Or Nancy Drew? The Four Story Mistake?”
“Mom! I mean, I don’t know what I want to start next. I don’t know if I’ll like any of those. So, I’m reading this while I decide.” At this point I realize that I am standing in a glass house clutching a stone. I have no room to talk.
A few days ago, on NPR’s You Must Read This series, Andrew Sean Greer commented that “some books inspire one to read, and some books inspire one to write; for selfish reasons, I’m always looking for the latter.” While I agree with this statement, I would add that for me, and apparently for my daughter, books are more like relationships with as many types of books as there are people.
On my bookcase, dresser, end table, and in my purse, one can find at least 3 or 4 books in progress, pages dog-eared (apologies to my librarian mother) waiting for our next conversation. My husband has been known to ask how I can keep track of multiple books at a time. I’ve refrained from pointing out that I rarely confuse him with our children, my friends, or my coworkers. I am drawn to different people depending on my circumstances and frame of mind.
There are the safe, warm blanket relationships – my husband, kids, immediate family. These relationships are precious, but generally predictable. We know each other’s patterns, quirks, raw edges. Occasionally something new pops up, but generally these are the people to whom I turn when the world is just a bit too complex and scary. I have literary friends that fall into this category; these are the warm cocoa and down blanket on a grey day books. Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Prejudice (really, most Jane Austen), the Harry Potter books, Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Winnie-the-Pooh.
Then there are the books that get me. We hit it off right away. They challenge and compel me. Our senses of humor mesh. But, I have to approach these books from the proper frame of mind. As with their human counterparts, these friends possess the ability to burrow under my defenses. And as with their human counterparts, a conversation with them can leave me feeling exalted or emotionally exposed and exhausted. Yet, when I come to these relationships with a sense of adventure, and openness, secure in myself, these become lifelong friends. With the gentling of time and familiarity, many of these cross into the warm blanket category, but they speak to a new part of me with every reading. Dorothy Sayers, M.F.K. Fischer, Mark Twain, Madeleine L’Engle, John Donne, William Shakespeare – the literary children of these authors stimulate my brain and fill my soul. Like their human analogs, these are the books that “inspire [me] to write.” They make me want to expand, to be better than myself.
Sometimes there is nothing better than sitting down for coffee or lunch with an old friend. We may not have seen each other for a year or more, but we know each other well. We can trust that neither will betray the trust of the other, and it is great to catch up on our lives and adventures. A new installment in a favorite series fits this scenario. Walking into a bookstore and finding a new title by Elizabeth Peters, Robert B. Parker, Cara Black, Dick Francis, or Laurie King gives me simple joy. I leap into these books without hesitation. I don’t fear unpleasant surprises or a deeper emotional confrontation than I can handle. They won’t ask much of me beyond a few hours of pleasant conversation.
Book recommendations – by a friend or a reviewer – can be a bit unnerving. This is the literary equivalent of a party where I know only the host. The evening may provide scintillating conversation, or I may find myself hiding in the bathroom. I approach these books warily, and in small doses. They may become my best friends, or we may never move beyond cautious small talk. These books require me to be at my most brave, my most outgoing. A few of these acquaintances – A Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott, The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing – patiently await our party. I’ll show up soon; I promise.
As much as I hate to admit it, some books, and some people, are simply much smarter than I. My ego can only cope with these individuals in small doses. Too prolonged an acquaintance leaves me feeling as though my brain has been upended and shaken -- leaving keys, wallet, the uncapped and half melted lip-stick, the tampon I really forgot was in there, and the wad of receipts in a pile on the table with the used Kleenex and lint. These conversations require a good night’s sleep and coffee. Literary magazines fall into this category for me. I occasionally feel guilty; as someone who loves to write, I should seek out the short stories in volumes like The New Yorker, Tin House, Glimmer Train, etc. When my brain is calm, alert, and inquisitive, I devour these stories. Other days, they have the ability to reduce my ego to a puddle of melted Jello. Some non-fiction has the same effect. The Drunkard’s Walk – How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow is dog-eared about half way through. It’s taken me over two weeks to get through 107 pages. I didn’t realize there would be so many statistics. His premise is fascinating, but after ten minutes, my brain starts to hurt and I begin to crave reality TV.
I love humanity, but I’ll admit that I don’t like every person I meet. As a devoted bibliophile, I would like to claim to enjoy all books, but I don’t. Sometimes our personalities are incompatible. Often, I can tell right away that these are acquaintances that I do not wish to pursue. As with people, excessive sweetness leaves me feeling hollow, jittery, and nauseous; you won’t often find me in the Romance section. And just as some people’s negativity creates an emotional black hole, some books are dark enough that I can’t be bothered. I love mysteries, won’t read horror; don’t bother trying to convert me. Life is too short. These types of books I avoid without guilt. There are, however, the failed relationships that bother me. We’ve been introduced by mutual friends, we really should like each other, but we go out of our way to avoid bumping into each other. Sometimes I find these books boring, pretentious, hopeless, or condescending. I’m sure that they believe me to be a frivolous, shallow snob. The Stand, Silas Marner, most novels by Charles Dickens, The Lord of the Flies all fall into this group. We speak well of each other in public (editor’s note: no she doesn’t) , but avoid meeting. Then, there are the books that I want to like but can’t. Like friendships that have begun brilliantly but faltered, these books leave me with the bitter taste of failure. Often, these are books in a genre or by an author that I genuinely enjoy. I can’t give a good reason why we’ve drifted apart, but it just doesn’t work out and soon, I stop calling. I’m ashamed to say that I have had to divorce Tolkien, the last several books in the Chronicles of Narnia, the third book in His Dark Materials. We have irreconcilable differences.
As I grow, my relationships with these books blend from one category to the next. Just as my husband can still surprise and seduce me after 15 years, I can still become enchanted by an ‘old-favorite.’ I know that the friends who most challenge me will be there for me when the chips are down, so, too, will Shakespeare, Donne, and the rest. New acquaintances may progress quickly from cocktail party chat to lifelong friendship. Who knows-- perhaps someday I will even learn to appreciate Silas Marner. Ok, maybe not.
So, what am I reading right now? I just finished Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. While I think that her books will end up in the “best friend” category, I’m holding off on A Crooked Little Heart for a bit. In the meantime, I’m curling up with my equivalent of the Berenstain Bears, Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon. I’m going to need a new copy soon.