Sometimes choosing one or two books from a whole year is like trying to pick the best meal you ate — great bites keep coming to you (wait, what about that fig and pancetta pizza?) In 2014, I ate well: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation might have hit me the hardest; it’s airy, funny and haunting. Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat was so good it made me want to be a writer. I tried to be the last person in America to read Patti Smith’s Just Kids and I think the 2010 National Book Awards got that one right. I loved the sweep of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and the weightless beauty of Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents (coming soon) and got into John O’Hara (thank you Penguin for reissuing), especially the big, weird, funny, I-can’t-really-tell-if-this-is-great-or-terrible omniscience of BUtterfield 8. Just this week I read a terrific debut: Mitchell Jackson’s pulsing and powerful The Residue Years (which also serves as a great counterpoint to hipper-than-thou Portland). And finally, the Spokane Shakespeare Reading Club is nearing the end of its two-year project — drunkenly discussing each play — and hey, get this: it turns out Hamlet is pretty good.
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I probably shouldn’t admit that I keep an Excel spreadsheet to track what books I’ve read in a given year. The file spans seventeen years, a book lover’s rap sheet, for sure; at my best, I was reading just under 50 books a year, a rate that I felt proud of. Unfortunately, I’ve been reading steadily fewer books over the years. I’m sure Excel could generate an instructive and depressing chart to illustrate this. After the birth of my daughter, I fell from tallies in the forties to the thirties. My son’s arrival in 2011 bumped me down to the twenties. Last year I was grazing the treetops just a few dozen feet above rock bottom.
I was once more casual about books, and I expected far less of myself as a reader. I read whatever was at hand, and I rarely tracked what I was reading. This changed—predictably—in college, when I joined a freshman class where I felt like everyone else had read everything important, while I had read nothing worthwhile. One boy in my Latin class seemed to have read Julius Caesar while in the cradle. Nietzsche was invoked often in late-night bull sessions at the dorm, and I knew the name, but could do little more than nod along. In one class, the professor and the students agreed The Great Gatsby was the solid-gold standard of all modern lit—tossing off references to the high-hatted lover, the ash heap, and West Egg, as if these were people and places they all knew personally as kids.
Looking back now, I can see how some of the people I thought knew everything had in fact just gathered enough knowledge to sound impressive. Such a nuanced understanding eluded me at the time, although such an insight even then would not have really made me feel better. I was a young man of no pedigree coming from the backwaters of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I was contending with the ex-pats of the East Coast and the better-bred urbanites of the Midwest’s larger cities; all that mattered was what it felt like I had not done, had not read, did not know.
Being prone to rash vows, I swore then that I would henceforth read everything that mattered. That I would embark upon the reading journey of all reading journeys. I’d just have to read everything. Fair enough: except I didn’t really know where to begin. And I didn’t really have time to get started in between integral calculus and seeking out new friends. I made no real progress until the arrival of summer vacation, when I returned home to work as a messenger in a law firm.
For weeks I stumbled blindly through books by William Blake and Carl Sandberg, but nothing really clicked till I opened a copy of the ever-controversial Lolita. Before then, I often said that I wanted to a writer but that I’d probably be a lawyer because it was more practical. After reading Nabokov, I had an epiphany on the order of anything out of Dubliners: I cared more about art than legal arguments. And I admired Nabokov more than any learned attorney. Nabokov was a perfect specimen of art made man. His voice and tone were pitch perfect; he was deeply learned and sophisticated, and he had the charm to make a deeply disturbing story into a thing of terrible beauty.
That summer I put Lolita in the hands of everyone I knew. I urged it onto a girl I was trying to impress. I gushed to the point of self-abasement with strangers at Barnes & Noble. I even convinced my 85-year-old grandmother to read it. She surprised me by diving in so deeply that she read with a copy of a French-English dictionary at hand, the better to unlock the meaning of each filigreed phrase.
I was startled by her deep engagement with the text. Here was a woman who had not finished her last year of high school, and yet she could settle into Nabokov’s wordplay with a verve all her own. The night that I fetched the book from her, after she had finished, we sat in her kitchen in the dim light of a hanging pendulum lamp; we were surrounded by tall piles she had made of newspapers that she intended to read. She lived alone, as my grandfather had died the year previous. We spoke until well after dark, something that had never happened before. The world was full of new surprises.
After that summer, I would never again pretend to care about a career in law: I was mesmerized by the idea of finding, reading, and maybe even writing consequential books. I didn’t have a future path for gainful employment, but I did have The List, and that, at the time, felt like enough.
I call it the List, but its full name is The List of Every Book I Need to Read before I Die. The rules of The List are simple. Rule 1: the List is never written down. It can only be kept in one’s head because only thought can hold the list of everything worth knowing, because the entire universe is worth knowing, and the universe is infinite. Rule 2: you cannot remove a book from the List until you’ve read it entirely—because until the last paragraph, anything can happen.
I have not bothered with any more rules because those two have proved trouble enough.
Those first years of exploring the books of The List were like the beginning stages of love; when you and your beloved discover a shared appreciation for lazy afternoons on a blanket in Central Park, forgetting everything else exists; when you are startled and overjoyed at the simplest coincidences; when it feels like the entire world is made for you to discover its hidden connections and contradictions.
I remember in particular when I fell for the work of William Faulkner in March of 1998. We’d been introduced before, but always at the wrong time and place. This time, I was particularly weak and needy: my graduation was nearing, and having abandoned law school, there were many legitimate questions about where I’d live and how I’d afford living. I was also physically ill with a late winter cold. Into this ailing world, there arrived a Modern Library double-edition of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.
Faulkner was brash, confident, and utterly unconventional in all the ways that I was vulnerable to. He was not proper and neat, like Nabokov. He broke things. He seethed. I did nothing for two days but lie in bed and power through both novels. Once I could stand again, I became the evangelist of yet another Great Book. You have to read Faulkner, I kept saying. Have you read this guy? You have to read this. The man has no limits!
One evening at a small party on the patio deck of a nearby apartment, I was introduced to another graduating senior, a woman who had just completed her honors thesis. I inquired about the topic. She said, simply: “Faulkner.” I am not lying when I tell you thunder rumbled in the distance: it had just finished raining. I put my hand on the railing to steady myself.
“Explain something to me,” I said, eager to dive in, “Why does Faulkner put a tiny picture of an eye in the text of The Sound and the Fury? Why is there a tiny coffin hidden in the lines of As I Lay Dying? What’s it all mean?”
This woman glanced at the cloudy skies, as if hopeful for rain but quick. “I don’t know,” she said. I think in retrospect that perhaps she thought I was in the opening stages of a come on. Maybe I was, in a manner. We were all drinking and we were all young and I was desperate to find a way forward that could join the world of reading to the real world of adulthood and being.
My way forward, eventually, led to New York for an MFA program that fall. And while there I began to meet more people tunneling through books, working their own Lists. To my great joy, among these people I could actually talk about what I was reading, and what I thought of Great and Important Books. Yet we were all also very busy and protective of our writing time, as we were all supposed to be composing Important Novels of our own. Also, I was still a laggard. I was reading fistfuls of Hemingway and Dostoevsky, but I still hadn’t read Moby-Dick, and whenever Jane Austen came up, I’d pretend to hear someone calling in another room.
Around that time I returned home again for the holidays and visited my grandmother. She was not living in her house any longer during the winters. Instead, her children prevailed on her to occupy a small cottage on a plot that my uncle owned near a deep pond called Gun Lake. The rooms where she lived were sparsely furnished; she brought little more than her clothes, a television, and dozens of books, which she stacked on the floor near a portable heater.
On a snowy Christmas Day, she and I sat on the divan near the windows where outside my uncle was shoveling snow and we talked about New York City, and what my life was like, and what I was reading there, what new authors I had to tell her about. I found these dialogues somehow more affecting than most of the ones that I had in New York because they were the most honest and true; neither my grandmother nor I had read everything we wanted to read, and we were both serious about fixing the score on that point.
This new relationship surprised me, but it was not without precedent. As a boy, after raking leaves or performing the prerequisite chores to help out, I would sit at my grandmother’s kitchen table with a finger to a page in her 2,128-page unabridged Webster’s dictionary, quizzing her on words while she baked. Pie-eyed; melancholy; puny—these were words we laughed over. This connection had matured into a kind of partnership when I was an adult, and we could speak honestly and like fellow travelers who met up from time to time.
After I finished graduate school, I kept up the tradition of the List; despite stepping away from a community of fellow readers, I did not find myself reading less. If anything, I began to read more. I crossed names off the List and added names on to replace the ones that have passed. I met and became smitten with the likes of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster and Yukio Mishima.
Around the time that I got married, I fell hard for Graham Greene’s serious novels. During the settling in period of my first home, I binged on John O’Hara. The joy of those books is intermingled with the joy of those periods of my life. Sometimes, I wish just as much that I could forget all the Graham Greene novels and begin The End of the Affair again for the first time. I wish I could read with unspoiled eyes the startling first chapter of BUtterfield 8. But you can’t go back.
I was eating dinner with friends on the Upper West Side in January 2010 when my father called and told me that my grandmother, Valerie Cote, had died. Like a character from countless novels or plays, I was to return home. And home I went, packed up with heavy feelings and the sense that a long, winding conversation had been interrupted—and would never resume again.
At the time, I was reading a book by Nam Le called The Boat. The Boat is a collection of stories, about which I can now remember almost nothing. I carried the book in a knapsack on the 11-hour drive home; and during the three days that I spent in Michigan, I know that I took the book out a few times, but I never really read it with any comprehension or joy.
Instead, while home I helped my parents empty out the apartment where my grandmother lived her final days. We threw out tattered clothes and sun-bleached furniture. There was very little worth keeping. She did not really seem to care about possessions. Except for her small horde of books. She was alone but not alone. In the collection of books near where she died, I recognized many books that she had carried unfinished around for ages, such as Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels. She had neglected the real world at the end and lived in the world of the book, and yet she still did not finish her List.
If it stimulated her, the reading, if it propped her up at the end, as her body failed her, as the light went out, I can’t say for sure. I can, however, say for certain that standing in her apartment while my mother vacuumed and my father packed up boxes, I felt no trace of her presence. It was as if she’d already been gone for ages. I suspect I would feel the same if I stood in Borges’s tiny flat or Proust’s bedroom. It is possible to stop living in the world long before you stop living.
So, then, what is it all worth, all this reading? Is it all just a delusion, a way of killing time, before time kills you?
I don’t think so, and my proof comes—ironically—via one last list. This list is a partial one, a mere sampling from the titles of the books that I took from my grandmother’s apartment and added to my own library on the shelves of my home in New York. This is the list of the place where my List, the list of a boy born in 1976 and still alive, overlaps with my grandmother’s List, the list of a girl born in 1915 and who died in 2010; despite our differences, we share a set of books that neither of us have ever read but both of us feel like we should and hope that we will read someday, somehow:
The last book in this partial list, This Side of Paradise, belongs to a set of hardcover F. Scott Fitzgerald novels which includes The Great Gatsby. And mention of Gatsby returns me—borne back ceaselessly on the tide of nostalgia—to the period in my life when I finally tasted of that great book, the golden apple of American literature, or so I’d been told to expect. I was almost twenty-three, and I read the book all at once over the course of an evening; from the start, Gatsby’s story sent a frisson of recognition through me, like when you approach a murky portrait in a dark room and discover that you are looking at a dusty mirror.
As every reader of Fitzgerald’s finest novel knows, Jay Gatsby fashions a new life out of the void of his past. Born in the Midwest, he rejects his birthright, changes his name, and moves to New York. He pursues an impossible dream. He remains slightly lost, ever in love with an ideal. He comes East to start fresh, but how do you escape the lonely heart you carry within you? Short answer: you don’t.
My grandmother was eleven when The Great Gatsby was published. Like a Jazz Age bon vivant, for a brief period in her teenage years she wore her hair short and danced the Charleston at a trendy club in downtown Kalamazoo. Her name at the time was Ruby Herrick. Years later, after marrying my grandfather, she took his last name—Cote—but she also did something unusual. She began to go by a new first name: Valerie. This was the only name I knew her by. I was a teenager before I learned that she’d once been known as Ruby.
She never left Kalamazoo, despite her name change. She never had to run, or never could. In contrast, I did not change my name, but I did flee to the East. And I do have my own ridiculous ambitions, especially when it comes to The List. I have fashioned a new life in a new city in the quest of an ideal, although I would be hard pressed to sum up all I am after in words. Jay Gatsby probably wouldn’t have been able to say precisely what he wanted, either. He also was a lover of books, by the way—as the owl-eyed man at a party at his house points out in the novel. Except none of the pages in Gatsby’s books are cut. Unlike my grandmother, he never read a single page. He had a different kind of List.
So, now, here I am, after seventeen years of reading my way through my List, and I am reading still, but not as often; and why is that? Perhaps I am too busy. Perhaps I am entering into a period when I can’t fit in time for reading, and so I am deferring much of it for later—as my grandmother began reading with a vengeance after her children were grown and her husband was away at the club with his semiretired friends.
Or, perhaps, the number of books I read has dropped to a low now because after years of accumulation, I have gathered up enough stories and views and perspectives that I can at last wade through life with some confidence. I am no longer that 18-year old cub so cowed by what all the others around him have done. I see ways into the world other those of the milieu that I was born into; certainly there are countless more ways of seeing, but for now I can ease off the throttle.
I’ll never quit, of course. For me, reading is an act of personal tradition, something that belongs to me as deeply as a genetic signature; it is a kind of ongoing, hereditary faith. The images, characters and stories that I have gathered up are the templates for the stories, narratives, and analogies that help me interpret the world—like an ivy using a trellis to catch and claw its way to the light. I am not any more trying to gain admission to a mandarin club or rise up in standing against my rivals. I am going to read, and read, and the reading itself is and will have to be enough.
Reading is solitary and personal, but you aren’t necessarily alone in it. In some ways, we are all reading together; even if we are also reading alone. The List is infinite. My life is finite. I don’t need to finish everything. Finishing isn’t even the point.
Image via Longborough University Library/Flickr