When I was engaged to be married, I lost my mind. I’m aware that sounds hyperbolic, but that’s really how it felt: as if my mind had abandoned me, slipped through my ears when I wasn’t looking, to be replaced with something that I didn’t recognize or trust. I was so nervous all the time, my mind skipping from one terrible and scary thought to the next, that reading became almost impossible. Do you know how many stories there are about bad marriages?
During this fraught time, I tried to read an Alice Munro story in the bath. What story, I have no idea (clearly, I blocked it out), but it was about a woman who kills her husband. I couldn’t finish it because I began to fear–to believe, actually–that I was in danger of killing my own future husband. Oh, how my Intended laughed when I voiced these fears! He wasn’t afraid of me and my murderous capabilities! He eventually talked me down from my nonsense ledge, and got me laughing along with him. But I was still too afraid to finish the story.
That was five years ago. I’ve since retrieved my mind, gotten and stayed married, and returned to reading. Thank goodness. Sometimes, I imagine all the great and beautiful books I must have missed during my engagement, and the loss sends a shiver of regret through me.
Last fall, when I found out I was pregnant, I waited for the mind-losing anxiety to descend on me once more. It didn’t. (Or, I should say, it hasn’t yet. I do have five more weeks to lose my mind for old time’s sake!) Because I feel as normal as can be expected when you’re growing a human being inside of you, I’ve noticed that other people experience anxiety for me. They don’t want me to carry anything, not even a carton of orange juice. They want me to sit down already! They want to give me more water, a glass of milk, a pint of ice cream. And they don’t want me to read just anything. More than once I’ve had a person recommend a book to me, and then say, “Oh, but don’t read it now. Not while you’re pregnant!” Apparently, people’s protective urges extend beyond the body of the mother-to-be, and into her reading life. If literature is clogged with unhappy marriages, it’s certainly also darkened with dead babies and the complex melancholy of mothers.
So, as either a warning to other mothers-to-be, or as great “Fuck you!” to all the people who keep telling me to keep things light as I carry my child to term, here’s a list of non-friendly pregnancy books. Read at your own risk…
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin: I admit, I haven’t read the novel, but I love the movie, starring the bewitching Mia Farrow. I have purposely kept my blonde hair very short these last 8 and a half months because I appreciate the cinematic allusion, though I have one friend in particular who urged me, early on, to grow out my locks. “It’s not funny!” she said. “What kind of message are you sending?” How about this: Every pregnant woman wonders, at least once, if she’s got the devil’s spawn growing inside of her.
The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell: This is the next novel I’m going to read, despite my sister Heidi’s warnings that I should wait until after my baby’s born. O’Farrell’s novel, which my sister could not put down, and which made her sob at its ending, follows two stories–one about a woman in post-war London, and one about contemporary parents in that same city. There’s apparently some childbirth trauma. Lots of blood, my sister said. She also told me to avoid Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks. The deaths–deaths, plural–in this novel still haunt her.
An Exact Replica of a Figure of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken: Every morning I awake to the spine of this powerful and painful memoir, which I chose as one of my favorite books of 2008. It sits on the shelf by my bed, right next to Nox by Anne Carson and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. (That’s a lot of death to wake up to, I realize). McCracken’s story of raising a child after the stillbirth of her first is all the more terrifying and moving because it’s true, and because she speaks of trauma and grief in a distinct, unflinching, and sometimes even funny way. I keep wondering if this book might mean more to me on a second read, now that I am pregnant, now that I know firsthand what I could lose, what and whom I would mourn. Such a book reminds me not to take this time in my life lightly; it reminds me that I’m already a mother.
Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk: This novel is about one day (a la Mrs. Dalloway) in the posh lives of British mothers. The unhappiness of its characters is so delicately and expertly rendered that it, at times, grows oppressive. These are women who feel unconnected to their husbands, their kids, their lives. Such a book makes me fear the very phrase Sippy Cup.
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: Shriver’s brilliant and dark novel is narrated by Eva, whose son Kevin is guilty of carrying out a Columbine-style high school killing. It’s a grim but often very funny narrative of maternal ambivalence, and it’s certainly a mind-fuck for any mom-to-be. Eva articulates every single dark thought a pregnant woman would be wise to avoid (For instance: “What if my child grows up to be a murderer?” And, “What if I don’t love him?”). Here’s a taste of the sharp prose, most likely to be left out of the highly-anticipated film adaptation with Tilda Swinton, due out this fall:
Meanwhile, I came to regard my body in a new light. For the first time I apprehended the little mounds on my chest as teats for the suckling of young, and their physical resemblance to udders on cows or the swinging distentions on lactating hounds was suddenly unavoidable. Funny how even women forget what breasts are for.
The cleft between my legs transformed as well. It lost a certain outrageousness, an obscenity, or achieved an obscenity of a different sort. The flaps seemed to open not to a narrow, snug dead end, but to something yawning. The passageway itself became a route to somewhere else, a real place, and not merely to a darkness of my mind. The twist of flesh in front took on a devious aspect, its inclusion overtly ulterior, a tempter, a sweetener for doing the species’ heavy lifting, like the lollipops I once got at the dentist.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is so far my favorite book of the year. I read it when I was about four months pregnant, and as I did so, I prayed I was having a girl (She might be anorexic, I thought, but she probably won’t be a serial killer.) Turns out, I’m having a boy. Ha! Shriver’s novel is the most memorable book I’ve read in a while. And also, um, the most frightening.
What novels do you recommend a pregnant woman avoid? Tempt me…
For about a year, the books in our apartment threatened to swallow my husband and me. Adding another bookcase, like adding another lane to an already clogged freeway, didn’t help–it only encouraged us to read more, and the piles kept growing. During the holidays, it got so bad that those stored on top of a shelf in the living room covered most of the framed French Connection poster on the wall above it; they even threatened to push the lamp off the edge. The books on top of the small shelf in the bedroom nearly blocked the light switch; soon we would either have to paw through the dark, or sleep with the lights on. Something had to be done.
Although I agreed with Patrick that we needed more space, I was resistant to a book purge. For one, I like books-as-interior-decoration. Their uniformity of shape contrasts well with their variation in color (unless, you’re one of these rubes who stores their books spine-in), and bookends are so elegant (I cherish my brass dogs from Restoration Hardware.) Plus, every few weeks I can avoid writing by rearranging and dusting the piles of novels scattered in each room. Why write my own when I have all of these published ones to keep me company?
I also felt strongly that our books revealed to visitors our values and our identities; the fact that we were swimming in them emphasized their importance in our lives. The first thing I look at when I walk into someone’s home is their bookshelf. That is, if they’ve got any–lord help me. On his goodreads profile, my friend Brian writes, “If you go home with someone, and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck ’em!” This has always struck me as wise advice for the literary bachelor or bachelorette, and I’d like to extend it further, away from the romantic and sexual: if you don’t read, I don’t want to be your friend…I don’t even want you to serve me a drink at a bar. If a stranger came over to our apartment, and there weren’t books, or–oh no!–not enough books, what would that say about me and Patrick? If my copy of Handmaid’s Tale or his copy of The Power Broker weren’t on display, how would anyone understand us? Some people have a cross in their home, or a mezuzah on their doorjamb. I’ve got nine books by Vladimir Nabokov.
Right before Christmas, my father came over for dinner and with a sneer told us we should get rid of our library. “You’re not actually going to re-read these, are you?” he asked. It should come as no surprise that he isn’t a reader (I wish I could say, “If you don’t read, I don’t want to be your daughter”…but, alas, I have no choice in the matter.) Patrick thought my dad had a point; a lot of these books were just sitting on the shelves, untouched. We should try to get rid of half of our books, he said after my father left. “But I need them for teaching!” I cried. I teach classes from home, and I love to allude to a book during workshop, and then, in the next moment, hand it to the student. “You’re not a librarian,” Patrick replied, that witty asshole.
So, one Sunday, we began. My first idea was that we would do each other’s dirty work. I would purge the books that belonged to Patrick, and he would purge mine. Nothing would leave the apartment without the other’s consent, but it was a good way to be objective about the matter. Patrick had no idea how much I’d enjoyed A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, so it clearly couldn’t mean all that much to me. That stung–but he was right, and into the exit line it went.
It wasn’t long before we began purging our own books, voluntarily. We were even a little frenzied. It was liberating, for instance, to finally give away Fortress of Solitude, which I must now publicly admit, I didn’t like as much as everyone else did. It felt okay to pull my copy of Tom Jones from the shelf; if someone wanted to assume I hadn’t read it, let them. Only I held the history of my reading past, of the semesters of college courses I diligently attended, reading everything (everything!) on the syllabus, taking sometimes useful, but more often ineffectual, notes in the margins. I didn’t need the books themselves to remember my reader-selves of yesteryear.
The pile of books to be purged grew larger and larger, covering the kitchen table, and the four chairs as well. The shelves were thinning out. I began to get a little spiritual about things. I liked the idea of passing on all these stories to new readers. Let them live on! I was in the service of humanity now!
Of course, we didn’t get rid of everything (sorry, humanity). Our favorites remained. Not only were Margaret Atwood and Robert Caro safe, so were Alice Munro, Joan Didion, Sam Lipsyte, James Joyce, and Anne Carson… and these were just a few of the authors who survived. Patrick and I had fun rearranging our two “favorites” shelves, one for long-beloved books, and one for newer books that had recently captured our imagination and hearts. We created a shelf specifically for authors we knew personally, from Kiki Petrosino to John Haskell; next time someone takes a gander at the collection, I am totally going to brag. We also migrated most of our poetry from the front of the apartment to the bedroom. (Upon moving in, we thought we might want to pull out a collection during a dinner party, to enliven it with a verse or two, but that never happened. Now, it seems more romantic and delicious to sleep and dream next to poems, rather than eat and surf the web next to them.)
Our best change is “The Unread” (either a book section or the latest horror flick, coming to a theatre near you). I am happy to say, it’s only a short pile, and it’s in no danger of blocking that movie poster. This pile is easy to access, and usefully recriminating; it’s difficult to defend a new book purchase when we have all of these waiting for us. Since the purge, I have already read one of these books (Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk) , and I’m halfway through another (The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).
It’s been a little over a week since we’ve cleaned out and rearranged our bookshelves. To my surprise, I don’t grieve the change. Three people have commented on how clean the place looks, and not one has noticed the lack of books. It’s like a flattering new haircut that no one sees–they just think you look great.
So where, you ask, did we send all of our unwanted books? Someone else might have tried to sell them online, or at a used bookstore, or scheduled appointments with literary-minded friends (the only kind worth having, as I’ve previously established). But we weren’t so prepared: we loaded them into garbage bags and dropped them off at our local Goodwill on Hollywood Blvd. If you head over there soon, you will certainly find some gems.
I.The other day, while looking for books to buy my future nephew, I recalled The Real Mother Goose, a classic I had loved as a kid. I could conjure the cover, with its illustration of a witch and a baby, riding a giant, flying bird (a goose, I guess). And the border was checkered – the squares were black and white. I remembered the size of the book in my small hands, and the texture of its cover, and the thickness of the pages inside. It thrilled me to think that my sister’s son might hold this book, and love it, like I had.For a period, novelist Katherine Taylor brought The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier to dinner parties. “Wine is boring,” she told me. “Books last longer.” Later, she took to giving everyone Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk, which, she said, “is not as dinner-party appropriate, but it was a gorgeous and largely overlooked book I thought my clever friends should read.” Now Ms. Taylor has moved onto handing out Maurice Sendak’s The Nutshell Library.My husband and I met and became friends in the summer of 2000 as coworkers at Book Soup. At the end of the summer, when I was due to return to Oberlin College in Ohio, he gave me a copy of Goodbye Columbus. On the first page, he had written a note: “Edan – For the summer. Thanks. Patrick.” Of course we got married.I love giving and getting books as gifts, and I’ve been wondering lately how the digital age will alter this ritual. Don’t get me wrong: I am not against the electronic book. As others have pointed out, ebooks will most likely inspire consumers to be more adventurous in their reading tastes. Nothing will go out of print, and the convenience is obvious. (I kind of want to read Infinite Jest on my iPhone – imagine how light it would be. Wait a minute… I don’t have an iPhone!) Once DRM goes away, and it will, the pass-it-on aspect of books will just explode. Book as mp3. Book as gossip. (If only that sexual astrology paperback we passed around in ninth grade had been digital…) In general, the ebook is a good thing for readers and writers. I prefer reading paperback novels, but if someone wants to read the book I’m writing on a fancy device, that sounds okay.So, let me make this clear: I’m not announcing the purity of print books over their digital brethren. I don’t want to wax poetic (not too much, anyway) about the sensual pleasures of print books, how they feel and smell, the weight of them – although that must account for something, because what fun will it be to receive an ebook for your birthday? Will anyone even bother? The emergence of a new technology implies the death of another, and the rise of the ebook could mean that no one will ever again give you a novel for hosting a dinner party. I think I’m in mourning.II.Why do people give books as gifts, anyway? I don’t mean just any book, but a specific book. Why did Patrick give me that copy of Philip Roth’s first novel? What did it imply?Last week, a woman came into the bookstore to get a copy of A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. She said she always gives it as a gift to people she’s getting to know. Those who love the novel as much as she does become her friends for life.I have a friend who likes to give Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being to women he’s interested in romantically. I told him he shouldn’t be dating anyone who hasn’t already read it.For many of us, books are cultural signifiers: if you like this, you will like that, and I will like you. A book serves as an aesthetic litmus test, a conversation starter, a way to understand one another through a third party. The act of giving someone a book is an important performance; it’s not just the book, but the exchange itself, and that’s why a digital copy won’t mean as much. You could email someone a love letter, but if you write it by hand… Well then.So, this: Reading is both a public and private act. It’s private in the sense that no amount of discourse can mirror or capture the intimate experience a reader has with a book and its author. But that discourse is precisely why it’s public – the blog posts, the reviews, the conversations over coffee, all of that affects and informs your reading experience. When you give someone a book you love, you’re inviting them to understand a private encounter you had with a text. It’s the fusing of the public and the private, the social and the intimate.III.I’ve recently realized that I’m also mourning reading in public, because e-readers will change that game as well. If a book is a cultural signifier, then the act of reading a book in public conveys important information to other readers. I always check out what people are reading: in coffee houses, at the beach, in bars, on airplanes. I am taking note, I am building a reader’s identity. It’s like – what kind of jeans is your soul wearing? It saddens me deeply to think about how this kind of signal will be lost with the popularity of ebook devices. What can an anonymous Kindle tell me about your inner life, and about what entertains you?Of course, the privacy of an e-reader is appealing, too. There are times when I want my private experience of reading to be just that – private. With a Kindle, I could read Stephenie Meyer on the bus without embarrassment. When I’m reading David Foster Wallace on my (nonexistent) iPhone, I won’t have to worry about some geeky douchebag hitting on me.Again, I see the value of this new technology. I get it. I just can’t seem to let go of what will be lost…