I was proud of the literature published and celebrated this year. It is always hard to choose, but especially at a time like now, when there are so many rich, nuanced, and courageous stories being told, when no single perspective is monopolizing the narrative. Still, these are just a few of the many books that filled me with hope.
I don’t usually read short story collections front to back, but Alexia Arthurs’s How to Love a Jamaican is exceptional. My favorite story is about a twin who, after a sighting of his estranged brother, reflects on their charged relationship, but I was enthralled by all of these complex and insightful celebrations of Jamaicans, at home and abroad, making their ways while mindful of the weight of history on their back.
I read Criminals, an older book by Margot Livesey, on a plane home from the Texas Book Festival. I finished it before I landed. In the first scene, a man finds a baby in a bathroom and takes her to his sister’s house, and so begins this suspenseful yet complex depiction of what people need, what drives people to do the things they do, and how far people will go.
I always return to Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I read it for the first time in high school, and now it’s like eating my Auntie Ann’s potato salad; when I start the first page, I’m taken back home. There aren’t too many books that control the reader the way that one does, that upends expectations and manipulates emotions, and by the end, even though I know what’s coming, I always feel haunted for days.
Heads of the Colored People is a hilarious and fresh reflection on race inequality. The characters are portrayed wholly and insightfully, and their experiences are masterfully conveyed. I will read anything Nafissa Thompson-Spires writes.
I read so that I can be transported and Praise Song for the Butterflies does just that. Bernice McFadden can inhabit any culture, any character, any experience, and Praise Song for the Butterflies is no exception. For those hours I was with Abeo, a daughter sacrificed to a religious sect, the burdens of her heart were mine.
I haven’t read a memoir like Heavy before. Kiese Laymon’s childhood experiences were textured and painful, and yet he managed to render them in such a way that their depth was not lost in the process of sharing them with us. I can’t imagine how much work it took, but the book reads as effortless—that’s how much grace each page carries. It’s a book to read, then reread, then reread again, and even then I don’t think we’d be capturing everything Laymon put down.
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At the turn of the 20th century, novelist Edith Wharton built The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts; a vast, Italianate villa of more than 16,000 square feet, finished according to Wharton’s own characteristically rigorous theories of architectural and garden design. New Yorkers of the Golden Age would drift languidly to the Berkshires in summer, to escape the sweltering Manhattan heat. They came for just such grand estates of manicured lawns and formal gardens; for the clear air and breezes; they came for the lakes, and the woodland; for the tennis courts, and courting rituals.
I, by contrast, came to the Berkshires in January. The snow lay thick and undisturbed, muting the landscape like dustsheets in a home shut up for winter. Beneath it everything was democratised, disguised, submerged and snow-softened into soft indistinguishable hummocks. Among empty summer homes, the houses of hardy, year-round residents were easily identifiable—many locals take the quite sensible precaution of shrink-wrapping their clapboard houses in plastic sheeting, to insulate against the bitterly cold wind. On the day I drove into Lenox, the local radio announcer seemed exercised. It’s below zero out there, today, folks, he warned a few times, in between Bon Jovi and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Pfff, I said to myself, it’s always below zero in London. I was feeling jolly, testing the limits of the four-wheel drive, skidding merrily around treacherous corners overhung with snow-thickened elm and oak. Then I realized he meant that it was below zero Fahrenheit. I slowed the car out of respect. This was a cold too cold for my mild English comprehension. For three hours I had been snug in my rented Ford Explorer, a steaming New York coffee and a bag of donut Munchkins beside me. How was I to know it was polar, out there?
I was coming to Lenox on a Wharton pilgrimage. The previous summer I had given a talk at the Mount, now restored and preserved as a museum and cultural center. My first novel, The Innocents, is a contemporary recasting of Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence, set in Jewish North-West London. I had come from Boston just for the afternoon to find French windows thrown open onto a glorious wide terrace, overlooking a formal, Italian-style garden, connected to the French garden by an avenue of pleached lindens. Sun-stunned drunken bees lurched and buzzed languidly, and Susan Wissler, the Mount’s director invited me to look out across this paradise and to imagine it in winter. Frigid January was their quietest month, but for staff the house was heated, and open. The off-season had its own charms. Susan wondered, would I like to come and write there? I would, I told her, without pausing for breath, and here I was. In my suitcase was a large tin of Marks and Spencer’s shortbread, to serve as a bribe, just in case she had forgotten her promise.
I made a home in Edith’s sewing room where the silence was broken only by the hiss and steam of radiators. The window looked out upon the terrace and the formal garden of topiaried box that had won my heart. For the most part, I was entirely alone. Almost certainly more alone than Edith had ever been there; I did not have an army of silent maids and butlers busily lubricating the household wheels. Instead, I had Boots.
Occasionally I would hear claws skittering on parquet and Boots would appear, the resident Alsatian on benign patrol, checking on my morning’s progress. It felt right to have a dog beside me as I worked though Edith herself would have preferred it to be a rinky-dink Chihuahua or a Papillion, small enough to balance on a tasselled silk cushion, on a lap. A postcard I particularly cherish shows her with a tiny dog erect on each shoulder, like a pair of parrots. These were Wharton’s beloved Chihuahuas Mimi and Miza (now buried out there beneath the snow, in Wharton’s well-populated pet cemetery). Her leg of mutton sleeves are substantially larger than each dog. Close together, all three faces fit beneath Wharton’s feathered hat, and while the canines gaze aristocratically off stage right, Edith meets the eye of the camera, humourless, demanding and commanding absolute respect.
Often I took a break from work and drifted through the empty museum that now fills her many rooms, if one can be said to drift in tire-soled North Face snow boots. Day after day I became more enraptured with the house. Ethan Frome was written here. The House of Mirth, Wharton’s greatest success, was written in this house, upstairs, in bed (with dog du jour). As she finished pages she would drop them on the floor, for a scurrying secretary to retrieve and transcribe.
And it was here, thanks to Susan, that I now began to write The Awkward Age , my own second novel, its title borrowed shamelessly from Wharton’s friend and frequent guest at The Mount, Henry James, who wrote rapturously of the house, ‘I am very happy here, surrounded by every loveliness of nature & every luxury of art & treated with a benevolence that brings tears to my eyes.”
As I worked, I wondering at Wharton’s seeming fluidity, and ease. I longed for the house to yield up her essence: her elegance, her determination, her focus. In a sense it did. If I caught myself on Twitter, I would cringe at the thought of Edith’s scorn, shut my laptop with a guilty slam and return for a moment to her window, to remind myself what it was that she had here achieved. I did more work under Edith’s influence than I had done in the six months preceding it. I admit it—I was slightly scared of her.
In the evenings I would scoop fresh snow into a highball tumbler to make cocktails. Whiskey and birch syrup; or bourbon, bitters and maple, a series of grown up New England Slurpees. I had received another, less grown up New England tip: boiling maple syrup poured on firm-packed snow turns to glorious taffy. I don’t think ever Edith did this, I thought, with rebellious delight, crouching in pale moonlight in pyjamas and boots and a fur trapper hat, extending a spitting saucepan to watch the steam rise as I poured with hands made clumsy with the cold. I retreated inside and silenced my chattering teeth by gumming them together with taffy, by the fire.
The Mount’s trustees liked a living author making use of the house for its proper purpose: fiction. Since that magical winter, thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, The Mount has created a formalized program of Writer-in-Residence, available every February and March to “writers and scholars of demonstrated accomplishment” who “are invited to create, advance, or complete works-in-progress.” I am wild with envy, jealous of all of those lucky so-and-sos with the experience ahead of them. I envy them the winter-hushed Narnian estate, the borrowed but intoxicating sense of luxury and privilege; the stark beauty, the solitude, but most of all, the union and intimacy with one of America’s great novelists. I was there first, I huffed to myself, upon learning of the new program, but even then I knew it wasn’t at all true. Edith Wharton was there before all of us; disdainful, imperious, brilliant foremother.
Photos courtesy of the author.
It’s been fifteen years since I’ve been able to stomach John Irving’s novels, and yet I keep buying his new books. His most recent novel, In One Person, sat on my nightstand for six months before I finally cleared it off in a fit of New Year’s resolutions. I felt guilty as I placed it on my bookshelf near Last Night In Twisted River, Irving’s previous novel, also abandoned. I had gotten both in hardcover, unable to wait for the paperback editions — unable to wait even as I knew I would be unlikely to finish them. The last Irving novel I finished (and enjoyed) was 1998’s A Widow For One Year.
My reading of In One Person followed a typical pattern. First, there was a period of comfort as I settled into Irving’s slightly askew fictional world, happily noting familiar milieus (New England, private boarding schools, wrestling teams), and subjects (sexual outsiders, small town politics, literary awakening). But boredom crept in as the plot began to take shape. It wasn’t so much that I could predict what was going to happen. (Even a mediocre Irving novel delivers when it comes to plot twists and secret revelations.) It was more that I felt trapped, as if I were seated next to a dinner party bore, the kind who has to tell his anecdotes just so, and won’t stand for questions or interruptions. In One Person is told in the first person, a point of view that allows for ambiguity, but Irving doesn’t like to leave anything open to interpretation. From the beginning of In One Person it’s clear who is good and who is hiding something; who is going to meet a bad end and who is going to be saved. Irving even alerts readers to his jokes, using italics and exclamation points on every page. Much of In One Person concerns the theater, and as I read Irving’s highly punctuated dialogue, I began to think of him as a director who gives line readings.
As I put In One Person aside, I wondered if I was just too old for John Irving. Maybe his books had always been this didactic, but when I was younger, I didn’t mind as much. Or maybe I had outgrown Irving’s old-fashioned storytelling techniques; maybe, as the author David Shields has suggested, we’re all getting sick of the narrative grunt work that fills the traditional novel, the acres of backstory and scene-setting that authors like Irving must deploy at the beginning of their epics — what Shields calls “the furniture-moving, the table-setting.” Or maybe my boredom with Irving had to do with television: maybe I’d been getting my nineteenth-century novel fix from soapy serials like Mad Men and Downton Abbey.
Or maybe John Irving’s books just weren’t as good as they used to be.
I decided to find out, taking all my Irving novels down from my shelves and getting the rest from the library — an errand that required a special trip to my library’s Central Branch. As I carried my Irving novels home, I felt the glimmer of the anticipation I used get as a teenager, when I checked out one of his books. I could see those old Irving covers in my mind’s eye, the ones with just his name and the title in a large font, because that was all you needed to know; there was no need for cover art, hinting at what the novel was “about.” Irving would let you know what it was about in due time. All you had to do was read.
I started reading John Irving when I was thirteen. My mother recommended The World According to Garp in a moment of exasperation. I was at a difficult age, reading-wise — too old for children’s books, but too unseasoned a reader to navigate the adult section of the library. My mother gave me novels from her own library, classics she thought appropriate for a young girl: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, and Ethan Frome. The only one I liked was Ethan Frome — a novel about a terrible accident, set in New England. Maybe that’s why my mother thought I would like The World According to Garp.
“This book is probably not appropriate for someone your age,” she said. And then she added, cryptically. “It’s about castration anxiety. So don’t be alarmed.”
It was summer, and I remember I read the book in two afternoons, sitting underneath the locust tree in our backyard. I had never read anything so funny or with such vivid characters. The settings, too, were fascinating to me, especially the scenes that took place in the fictional New Hampshire boarding school of Steering Academy. My family had lived in Exeter, New Hampshire, for several years, and so I recognized that Steering was based on Exeter Academy. The recognition thrilled me. Even though I knew that authors often incorporated real-life people and places into their work, it was the first time I’d made the connection myself.
Looking back, I am surprised by how little I knew of writers’ lives — or maybe, how little I conceived of them. Even though I knew by then that I wanted to become a writer, I still thought of books in terms of their titles and their subject matter, not their authorship. Reading John Irving changed that. Maybe because Irving had written about a place where I had actually lived, it was easier to imagine him as a real person, living in the same world as me and writing about it. Or maybe it was because so many of Irving’s books contained writer characters and descriptions of the writing process. Whatever the reason, I began to pay attention to the contemporary literary world, noticing what books were being published and what other people thought of them. For the first time it occurred to me to care about the order in which books were written and to think about a writer’s output holistically. I did this with Irving, working backwards through his early “literary” novels, and then reading the bestsellers that followed Garp: The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany. (Owen Meany was my introduction to the library’s waitlist.)
When his eighth novel, A Son of the Circus, was published, I was surprised to find that I didn’t like it enough to finish it. Still, when A Widow For One Year came out four years later, I asked my parents to buy it for me in hardcover as a twentieth birthday present. The book was published in May, the same month as my birthday, and I read it as a reward at the end of my semester. And what a reward! It was a long, absorbing reading experience, especially the book’s first section, a novella-like passage that unfolds over the course of one summer, and tells the story of a grieving couple who have given up on their marriage, but not on the memory of their dead teenage sons. The custody battle over their remaining child, a young girl — who in later sections becomes the novel’s writer-protagonist — is understandably complex, but in a completely unexpected and heartbreaking way. I thought it was one of Irving’s best books, maybe even better than Garp.
By then I was in college, an English major, and I had learned, among other things, that academia did not smile upon John Irving. It was a snobbery I didn’t understand until I pressed Garp into the hands of a new boyfriend. I don’t know what I was thinking. His favorite novel was The Remains of the Day. Upon finishing Garp, all he said was, “It’s not very subtle, is it?”
My boyfriend was one of those young men to whom taste is everything, and his opinion meant more to me than it should have. When he said “not very subtle”, I heard “trashy.” Crushed, I decided to stop by the office of a professor who had given A Widow For One Year a favorable review in The New York Times. I don’t know what I expected this professor to tell me; I suppose I wanted him to legitimize my love for Irving. He ended up elaborating upon what he had written in his review, praising Irving’s ability to write good action sequences, particularly violent ones. Walking back to my dorm, I thought about the many violent scenes in Irving’s fiction, how they are always a little bit slapstick — never choreographed and slick, like in the movies, or poetic, as in “grittily realistic” literary novels. It was this comic element, I thought, that made Irving seem crude, and maybe even trashy; but to me, the injection of humor — however broad — was what made Irving an honest and humane writer, one who was not writing “unsubtle” scenes to arouse or provoke, but to represent the absurd sloppiness of life.
Later that year, I took my first fiction-writing class, where I tried to write a story in the vein of Irving, about a gentleman farmer who flies planes for fun. One day the farmer crashes his hobby-plane into his hobby-field and dies upon impact. Instead of feeling sorry for his widow, everyone says she and the children are better off without such a stupid dilettante father. The widow moves to Baltimore and something happens there, I can’t remember what. The point is, it was supposed to be a funny story, but it came out very bleak and sad. I tried to use an all-knowing and transparently authorial narrator, as Irving often does, but this only irritated my classmates, who were accustomed to narration in the close third person and wrote things in the margins like “Who is narrating this story?? It should be one of the characters.” In short, I learned first hand just how hard it is to write like John Irving. You would think that would have made me respect him even more. Instead I began to think of him as a bad influence.
In the years that followed, I approached Irving’s new novels with caution and was almost relieved when I didn’t like them. It’s only recently that I’ve wanted to return to his work, and I’m not sure if it’s out of loyalty to him, or to my younger self.
It’s always humbling to admit to changes in your own taste. Over Christmas, I found myself cringing with the release of Les Miserables, as snippets of the soundtrack played during television commercials and trailers. Why, out of all the music I could have burned onto my adolescent brain, had I picked Les Miserables? I thought I would feel the same annoyed regret as I skimmed old Irving novels, but the experience was more like getting back in touch with an ex-boyfriend — there was irritation, yes, but a lot of affection, too.
In my rereading, I was struck, first of all, by how cozy and self-contained Irving’s novels are. It was easy to peer into old favorites, to smile at the inside-joke chapter headings and emblematic sayings like “Keep passing the open windows,” (The Hotel New Hampshire) and “Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England,” (The Cider House Rules). I’ve read Garp a half dozen times, so I wasn’t surprised that I could dip in and out of it at will, but I found that I could also make myself at home in novels of Irving’s that I knew less well. Opening A Prayer for Owen Meany, I read a passage in which the narrator describes his grandmother’s love of Liberace. This was not a part of the book I remembered, but after just reading those few pages — which included some of Owen Meany’s infamous all-caps opining — I was able to recall a whole universe of characters and situations. The best Irving novels work like that; they create their own parallel worlds, underpinned by repetition — repetition of phrases, situations, descriptions, and motifs. And, as Irving fans love to note, the repetitions often continue across books; he doesn’t hesitate to recycle milieus and symbols that work for him, even if they’re quite specific. (Vienna, bears, wrestling…) Every writer does this to some degree, but with Irving it’s more noticeable, because the atmosphere of a John Irving novel is such a key part of its appeal.
Another thing I noticed while rereading was how clear Irving’s writing is, sentence by sentence. Critics don’t give Irving much credit for his prose style, maybe because his zany plots and characters overshadow it. (Or maybe it’s his enthusiastic use of italics and exclamation points.) But I was impressed by how gracefully he writes, even when he’s being “unsubtle.” There is a transparency to his exposition that is not easy to achieve, but Irving does nothing to draw attention to his effort. In contemporary fiction, this lack of preciousness is rare. Irving’s style has only become simpler over the years. It’s almost as if he decided to keep his prose straightforward so that his plotting could become more elaborate.
Which brings us to plot. If there’s one thing John Irving wants you to know about his literary technique, it’s that he plans his storylines in advance, and that he always knows the ending of the book before he starts writing. In every interview, going back at least twenty years, he hammers this point home, going so far as to reveal the last sentence of his novels-in-progress. In 1986, while he was working on A Prayer For Owen Meany, he told The Paris Review, “The authority of the storyteller’s voice — of mine, anyway — comes from knowing how it all comes out before you begin. It’s very plodding work, really.”
I find Irving’s choice of the word “plodding” interesting, because that’s exactly how I would describe parts of Owen Meany, a novel whose narrator is so prone to woebegone foreshadowing that the plot sometimes feels soggy. Plodding might also be the word I would use to describe the experience of reading (or rather, trying to read) Irving’s last three novels. Even though the prose was as easygoing as ever, and the settings and characters as richly imagined, the storytelling felt overdetermined, with all the plot elements neatly arranged, all the coincidences pointing in the same direction. This seems to be Irving’s artistic aim, though. In a recent interview with Portland Monthly, Irving explained his method this way: “My novels are predetermined collision courses; the reader always anticipates what’s coming — you just don’t know the how and the when, and the small details”. In another interview, Irving revealed the last sentence of his next novel: “Not every collision course comes as a surprise.”
If only there were more surprises in Irving’s fiction! It’s a writing workshop cliché to say, “if there’s no surprise for the writer, then there’s no surprise for the reader,” but in Irving’s case, that diagnosis seems apt. The irony is that Irving sees his tightly controlled plotting as evidence of his advanced skill. At a reading I attended, shortly after the publication of In One Person, he addressed fans who prefer his earlier works to his later ones, saying that they were welcome to choose favorites, but from his point of view, his later works were superior, because he was so much better at crafting stories. He compared his recent novels to well-tailored suits, explaining that they were just better-fitting, that he was the tailor, and he should know.
As a reader who prefers his earlier novels, I found this comparison annoying, the implication being that I preferred shiny off-the-rack suits. The more I thought about it, however, I realized it was an apt metaphor. Irving’s late novels are perfectly tailored, they do fit better — in fact they fit like straightjackets. There is no room for the reader to move around, to get comfortable.
A funny thing happened while I was writing this essay: I got sucked into a John Irving novel in the old way. The novel was The Fourth Hand, a book I attempted when it was first published in 2002, but abandoned halfway through, irritated by its depiction of women. Rereading it now, I can guess what was offensive to me in its opening chapters, which include a female character whose salient quality is her bralessness, and a scene at a feminist convention where the participants are described mostly in terms of their looks. I almost gave up on the book a second time, but I could see that at least some of Irving’s misogyny was intentional, that he was trying to illustrate the crass mindset of his thoughtless protagonist, Patrick Wallingford. The Fourth Hand is about Wallingford’s transformation from a superficial, vain, person to a kind, loving one. Naturally, it’s a love story, with the bizarre coincidences and twists of fate you would expect from any romantic comedy (or John Irving novel). It’s also a newsroom satire: Patrick Wallingford is a TV anchorman whose career, as well as his soul, is at stake. It’s a funny, messy, uneven book, with a convoluted-borderline-nonsensical storyline, and a lot of recycling from Irving’s previous novels. Oh, and did I mention that Wallingford is missing his left hand? (In the words of my mother, it’s about castration anxiety, so don’t be alarmed.) The Fourth Hand is definitely not a “tailored suit” novel and that’s probably why I ended up liking it — it had some of that old Irving sloppiness.
The ending of The Fourth Hand is subdued and melancholy, and includes an unexpected discussion of Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient. Wallingford reads the novel when he’s trying to impress the woman he’s fallen in love with. But whenever he tries to discuss the book with her, he chooses the wrong parts to admire. He can’t seem to figure out what she likes about the book, or what it means to her, and finally decides that reading experiences are not something that can be easily shared, observing that good novels “are comprised of a range of moods you are in when you read them or see them. You can never exactly imitate someone else’s love of a movie or a book.”
To Wallingford’s observation, I might add that you can never exactly replicate your own reading experiences, and that books and authors are colored by age and experience, for good and for ill. As I was rereading Irving, I was aware that my formative experience of reading his novels made it hard for me to be objective about his later work. John Irving could write his best book next year, and it probably wouldn’t be as good as Garp was, the first time I read it. Sometimes you just have to be grateful for the time you had with an author, and then move on.
Illustration by Bill Morris
As had become our Saturday morning summer routine, my friend and I were sitting on the benches outside of our local café nursing iced coffees and watching the neighborhood go by.
“That’s a weird outfit,” Anshu said, nodding in the direction of a man whose printed belt matched his printed shoes, which matched his printed hat.
“Is it just me or are there more lesbians around here than there used to be?” I responded.
“Maybe.” She chewed on her straw. “Remember that time in college when it snowed two feet? I want it to be cold like that now.”
I nodded. We were silent, taking in the traffic and the people coming and going and the small dog that was tied to a signpost and the woman who was having a battle of the wills with her bike lock.
Anshu’s eyes then landed on a girl—about nine or ten—sitting with her mother on the bench beside us, oblivious to everything, her nose in a book.
“She’s reading The Witches,” Anshu said, nudging me and nodding in the child’s direction. “I can see the words ‘Norwegian Witch’ from here.”
I looked over. Sure enough, I could read the large, child-sized font from where I sat as well. I looked again at Anshu, who is not known for her soft side. I could almost reach out with my bare hands and grab hold of her desire to be picked up out of her own body and replaced into that of the girl’s.
“I love Roald Dahl,” Anshu was growing more misty-eyed by the second. “I wonder if her mother gave her the book?”
“I don’t know,” I said noncommittally and eyeing the girl’s mother who, like us moments earlier, seemed preoccupied by the intricacies of traffic patterns.
I smiled. I wanted her to keep indulging the nostalgia.
From there we traded childhood reading habits. Anshu had grown up Indian-American in Seattle and I had grown up Just Plain American in Virginia, but our formative literary lives had been the same. We remembered bringing books to the dinner table and we remembered being told to put them away and participate in conversation. There were the flashlights snuck into bed for reading after lights out. I was indignant all over again about Amy stealing Laurie out from under Jo even if Jo didn’t care. Anshu described running across her backyard in Seattle the way she imagined Anne ran across the fields of Prince Edward Island towards Green Gables. We both remembered how, when we walked our family dogs, we would leave the house with a leash in one hand, a book in the other. The walks, which without a novel seemed endless and boring, would be over and we’d be back at our front doors—dogs relieved, parents satisfied—before we had even had a chance to look around and take note of the clouds, the weather, our fellow dog walkers, trash days, “For Sale” signs, the Volvos parked in driveways.
I wondered whether these experiences were some of the things that had led us to be, at thirty, sitting together on a bench in Brooklyn: single, childless roommates.
If we are lucky we are read to before we read to ourselves. That is where it all originates. For me, the beginning of the story went like this:
Dinner is over. It was creamed asparagus on toast and I had seconds. Dad is doing the dishes and my sister is upstairs in her room finishing her homework. The dog is licking the dishes sitting pre-washed but still dirty in the dishwasher. It is almost my bedtime, but first mom will read a chapter aloud. Every night for almost two months we have been sitting down together on the couch at this time and, as dusk gathers outside, she has been reading me Little Women. Before starting, she reaches an arm around me. There’s a part of her that is a would-be actress and so she is good at reading, doing distinct voices for different characters in their various situations: Meg leaving home, Jo cutting her hair, Beth exclaiming over that piano, Amy telling Jo she’s fallen for Laurie, Marmee in the arm chair by the fire reading letters from their father on the front.
At the end of each chapter, my mother gets quiet and still for a moment. By now it is completely dark outside and I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed. I can’t even see the trees in the front yard. Then: “Bedtime,” she announces decisively. I protest. Just a few more pages. One more chapter. But my mother grew up in the fifties on a chicken farm in rural Maine and has the get-on-with-it attitude of that time and place. “No, it’s off to bed with you,” she says taking her arm from around me and closing the book. “Another chapter tomorrow night.”
And so it would be until there were no more chapters because the little women had all grown up.
If there is one thing that can consistently reduce even the most hardened cynic to a sentimental softie, it is the books she read as a child.
Of course, we still read, my friends and I. We read on the subway and on the couch or in bed just as we used to do. But it’s not the same: the subway ride ends, the couch inspires naptime, a flashlight under the covers is absurd. I certainly can’t remember the last time I heard someone say, “I was walking down the street reading a book when….”
The closest I’ve come to witnessing such a scenario was last summer when a friend and I were going hiking. She had her nose in the trail map and we had yet to leave the parking lot or break a sweat when—not looking where she was going—she fell off the curb, cutting herself so badly she ended up needing to go to the hospital and foregoing the hike. In the time between now and when we last walked the dog and read a novel at the same time, it seems we’ve lost the ability to read and walk simultaneously. These days, I put dinnertime ahead of reading and fit the latter in where I can and when I feel like it. Often, until I am directly confronted with the sight of a girl and her book—a sight outside the purview of my current routines—it can slip my mind that I, too, used to read like that. To love reading like that.
As it was with our first loves, we fall hard for our first books. When we were with them the rest of the world fell away. And as with our first loves, we will never let go of ourselves like that again. I’ve asked myself when it was I read for the last time as a child, but the question is as pointless as asking when me and my first love lost what it was we once had. The answer is probably nothing more than, “One day the magic was there and the next day it wasn’t.” At some point I just took the dog for a walk without a novel, looked around, and either the things around me had changed or I had.
The diminishment of the intensity is an evolutionary imperative. We reach a point at which we no longer allow ourselves to read like that because if we did we would never get anything else done. We wouldn’t meet new people or remember to make those doctors appointments. If we still read with the intensity of an eight-year-old or loved with the intensity of a novice, at thirty we might forget to leave the house at all.
While the same could be said for boys—who I am sure have their own list of classics that conjure a unique common history—I am speaking here for girls. Girls and the books that taught them everything from how to reach out and touch something fuzzy to what it was like to get their periods and find an insane not-so-ex-wife in the attic. Just a list of titles is enough to conjure the timeline of an entire X-chromosomed American childhood: Pat the Bunny, The Runaway Bunny, Blueberries for Sal, The Lonely Doll, Miss Rumphius, Madeline, The Secret Garden, Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, Ramona Quimby Age 8, The BFG, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, Julie of the Wolves, Jacob Have I Loved, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, Rebecca, Jane Eyre again, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre again, Ethan Frome…
Somewhere around Ethan Frome is where the unselfconscious abandon began to dissipate in lieu of simply sincere appreciation and sometimes even a little critical distance. Whereas I can’t count the number of books I couldn’t put down in the first fifteen years of my life, I could name on two hands and feet the number of books I’ve felt that way about in my second fifteen years. But that fact does not make me sad or give me pause and not because I tell myself that if it were otherwise I would have ended up a hobo. What seems to matter most is that I had those first fifteen years to begin with.
My friends feel similarly. One formerly horse-crazy friend talks often about her childhood passion for the Marguerite Henry books. Another friend has an entire shelf devoted to her childhood library, and that’s where she turns on the days when she’s tempted to get in bed and never get out. Another friend has taken it all a step further than the rest of us and is getting a Ph.D. in Y.A. Literature, writing academic papers on Ramona and The Twits that she then presents at high-brow conferences across the country. These are the things we have carried with us and as such are the things we have to give away.
When I turned thirty this year, the same friend who had fallen off the curb and gone to the hospital gave me her three favorite Y.A. novels from childhood. A few months earlier, she and I had compared notes on what we’d read when we were young and she had learned that her favorites had not been on my early reading lists. When I told her I hadn’t read Caddie Woodlawn she said, “You haven’t?!” as if I just told her I had never brushed my teeth. With this birthday present she had wanted to rectify that—to her mind—gaping hole in my life.
I haven’t read the books she gave me just yet, but the fact that she gave them to me at all is just it: Not only do we hold these books we’ve read and characters we grew up with close, but we want to share them, to pass them on. As of my writing this, my friend who fell off the curb is also single and childless. I am not convinced I was the person she wanted to be giving books to that day.
When people have children, some are reluctant to admit it, but they have a secret preference in their hearts for a girl over a boy or vise versa and for a multitude of reasons. I am nowhere near the stage in life of being a parent myself, but when the time comes as I hope it one day will, I often think I want a girl. I want this because I recognize even now how much it will matter to me to know and understand how she is feeling and what she is learning and experiencing all for the first time. I know too how difficult it will be to access these complicated growing-up emotions of hers, ferreted as they will be inside a person not myself. To put a book that was once special to me into her hands and watch it become special to her is one way to do that. At least for a little while.
But before I send her off to read on her own, I want to be able to sit on the couch with her and do the voices of the characters. As it is with my mother, there is a would-be actress inside me, too. It will be getting dark outside and the spot on the couch where she and I will sit will be the only well-light place in the house. A husband will be doing the dishes and have a dog to keep him company and help with the grunt work. He won’t be watching because he wouldn’t want to intrude, but he will listen from the other room.
I will put my arm around her and start like this:
CHAPTER ONE: Playing Pilgrims
Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug…
Seen from outside the window, she and I in the arms of the light beside the couch might make you think that here is where the entire world begins and ends.
[Image credit: Frank]
Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read. Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.
Over the years, this has changed. Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable. I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution. It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.
One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read. One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those! Should should should. Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt. I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust! And Dickens! And Virginia Woolf! And (these days) Bolaño!
My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose. And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence. I’m not getting any younger, after all. Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time. Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.
My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.
Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual. For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment. As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):
Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is. You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:
Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)
It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it. And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many. What can I say…
Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit
The following category speaks for itself:
Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake
I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons. There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.
Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.
“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego. An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level. But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity. So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games. I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way. It absolutely was not. I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:
Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End
The Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett
This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary. This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read. I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.
In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience. I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable. Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking. But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing. This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.
Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift. If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older. I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life. To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.