Before her Netflix series, patron saint of minimalism Marie Kondo first entered our lives through her best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, teaching hoarders and people struggling to clean house how to let go of objects that didn’t bring them joy. With the recent release of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, suddenly everyone was following her mantra, clutching household items to see if there was a spark and, if not, cathartically discarding them.
I watched this obsession sweep through my social media feeds, my friends posting pictures of to-be-donated loot and freshly organized homes. Everyone buzzed with this downsizing energy, until they discovered an aspect of the KonMari Method that didn’t spark any joy whatsoever.
In keeping with her philosophy, Marie Kondo shared that she keeps her collection of books to “about thirty volumes at any one time,” recommending to her readers and viewers that they do the same. But she also acknowledged that “the act of picking up and choosing objects is extremely personal” and that people should go with their gut when it comes to their books—because unlike other clutter, books can serve as conduits for knowledge and imagination. But in the game of telephone that is the internet, something got misinterpreted somewhere and everyone assumed she meant everyone should only have 30 books. No exceptions.
The literary internet exploded: “You can have my books when you pry them from my cold dead hands!” Blogs and opinion pieces proliferated, full of indignant readers decrying this proclamation. A few voices finally managed to cut through the noise and set the record straight, but the manic frenzy had already exposed readers for what we really are: possessive lunatics who could let go of a lot of things, but refused to part with our books. Literary Gollums that wouldn’t let anyone take away our preciouses.
I understood and was sympathetic to this reaction; I too cherish my books. I’ve loved to read since childhood. But I also understood Marie Kondo’s point of view and rationale for keeping her book collection to a minimum. For the past few years, I’ve had, at most, five to 10 actual books in my personal library. Yes, you read that correctly, five to 10 books.
Shortly after college, I moved abroad. With a small moving budget and no job prospects, I had to discard most of my worldly possessions. To that end, I donated the vast majority of my rather large book collection. I did keep a few titles to take abroad, such as my signed copy of David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and a collection of haunting short stories by Jean McNeil.
I lived in Chile for three years, where books are very expensive, incomes are low, and the selection of English-language books is subpar. I knew I would eventually return to the States or move elsewhere—and when I did, I would once again need to downsize my library. So, during my time in Chile, I mostly abstained from buying physical books, relying instead on e-books.
At the end of 2018, the time came for another move and so, with a heavy heart, I turned to my solitary bookcase. On the top shelf sat my meager collection, the other shelves used to display photos and tchotchkes. There were 15 volumes in all: some new, some not.
I took down each book. I fanned the pages through my fingers, held it to my face, inhaled the scent. Stroking the spines, I recalled my personal history with each book: Where did I buy it, when did I read it, how did it impact me? Did it bring me joy?
In short: yes. They all brought me joy. So, that clearly couldn’t be my defining question. But what was the defining question and which books should stay with me?
There were some obvious keepers: the David Sedaris. A few books that would remind me of my time in Chile: a book about the art of Chilean bread, another of native folktales. The Jean McNeil.
Then came the cuts. The books I didn’t want to discard, but weren’t as special or important as others. The ones I hadn’t enjoyed. The titles that had made the trip to South America but wouldn’t return: my Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example. While I still loved the story, I no longer felt the need to bring the book back with me.
Some of my picks stayed the same even after years had passed, while others changed just as I and my tastes had changed. But, as I placed the books I was donating or selling into a separate pile, I noticed a sense of sorrow blanketing the proceedings. I was mourning my books. Why?
Why are we so attached to our books? As I held and decided the fate of each book, I kept coming back to this question. Why was I attached to these physical objects? Paper, binding glue, a cover. Fairly simple and commonplace. I knew I could easily find replacements for my discarded books, and that, with the exception of my David Sedaris—which he had autographed to me personally—the true connection I felt was to the stories themselves. The books were mere vessels. So why didn’t I want to part with them?
Readers, especially “avid” readers, aren’t exactly known for our rationality. We collect, covet, and guard books the way a dragon does jewels. There’s even a word for having too many books: tsundoku. We say it’s about constantly craving new stories and adventures. Discovering new authors. We justify the expenditures as the desire to financially support writers, publishers, our own neighborhood bookshop.
The simple answer for our attachment to books is that it’s about emotion. Reading a story is a deeply personal and intimate act: connecting or empathizing with the struggles of the characters; being swept along by the narrative; losing yourself in the descriptions of a landscape. And when our feelings get involved, rationality goes out the door. We conflate these physical objects with their stories —and our emotional reactions to those stories—making it harder to separate the two. Any object can be imbued with meaning by circumstance or association, but books more so because of what they contain and how stories speak to us.
“But it’s not just the story!” you may say. “It’s also about the book itself: the feel of its feathered pages, that old- or new-book smell, the weight of it in your bag.” Yes, a book is a divine object, timeless and yet finite in its physical state. A book can be lost, damaged, burned, but the story lives on. Maybe the book was a present from someone special. Maybe it was bought and read during a key life moment. All this can make it harder to separate the raw physicality of the book from the emotional pull of the story. The book is the story and the story is the book. And that’s the complex answer. I too love the feel of an actual book in my hands, but does that mean that I need it? I need the story, that’s why I bought the book. Shouldn’t it matter more the why of reading, not the how?
Living abroad and trying to keep my collection to a minimum while staying up to date with bestsellers and popular reads, I had to turn to e-books, which was a significant departure for me. I’d never been a fan of e-books, and at first I resisted them. I missed the feel of a book, the heft, the sense of satisfaction of slotting a bookmark into place, watching the slow march of pages falling from right to left as I read through the book, accumulating as more and more of the story was laid bare to me. But as I read more ebooks, I gradually understood and embraced their uses: they take up only virtual space, they’re cheaper, and infinitely easier to transport. Perfect for someone who isn’t ready to put down roots like me.
But many lit-lovers scoff at people who use e-readers or who have small book collections, arguing that they’re not real readers or not as “serious”—as if it’s a competition. And much of the culture around literature supports this obsessive book hoarding. The former Shelfari’s Compulsive Book Hoarders website (now merged with GoodReads) required members to have 1,000 books in their personal libraries before signing up. Readers on Instagram display their packed shelves with pride. We love to brag about how many books we have.
So, we can only be good readers and love books if we have a massive personal library? This exposes a blatantly materialist and classist side of book culture. When considering this, I’m reminded of a popular John Waters quote: “If you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.” When I was younger I took this flawed concept to heart: I shouldn’t be with someone who doesn’t have books because that means they don’t read, and if they don’t read they’re….what? The implication is that if someone doesn’t read, doesn’t have shelves of books in their home to display their intelligence, they’re uneducated and unsophisticated. It’s a very morally superior view, snobbish and condescending. And I reject that.
I’ve lived in a country where most people can’t afford to buy many—if any—books, and libraries aren’t readily accessible. But that doesn’t mean the people I met weren’t astute, engaged, thoughtful individuals. I have a partner who has never read the Harry Potter series—something I once considered a deal breaker due to their childhood significance for me—because they’re too expensive. The ability to own books does not dictate worth or intelligence.
I’ve completely reevaluated my relationship to books and reading in the past few years. I’ve constantly questioned my impulse to buy books, knowing that I’d likely need to discard them, weighing my desire to travel and save money against my love of books. I’ve had to find the balance. I’ve had to fight the urge to accumulate more and more, and instead prioritize story over form.
At the end of the day, I still struggle with it. I will probably always prefer real books. I want to buy a book at every bookstore I visit. My dream home does include a giant library with a cozy reading nook. But my attitude toward reading has matured. I have rejected elitist attitudes. I’ve gotten rid of hundreds of books in my short time on this earth, but that doesn’t mean I love books any less. It means I’m able to let objects go while still treasuring the lessons and morals they gave me. The important thing is that people read and learn. While I hated selling my books when preparing to leave Chile, I loved that I could sell them to other readers. Reading is a solitary act, but the love of reading and literature is communal. How stories get passed down has evolved many times, from spoken word to papyrus scrolls to paper to e-books. But what books convey to readers remains the same: a story, an idea, a transport to somewhere new.
If you want to have a giant library, have a giant library. Or not. It’s okay to only have a few books. Or no books. Or e-books. Let go of books or hold onto them. Do what works for you, just as I found a method that works for me, a flighty reader who has learned to appreciate the convenience of modern reading technology. What sparks joy for me is the act of reading itself and the pleasure and reflection it provides.
Image credit: Unsplash/Ed Robertson.
In 2014 we lost some great writers — two Nobel laureates, prize-winning poets and playwrights, a beloved memoirist/poet, an unrivalled nature writer, satirists, historical novelists, crime novelists, biographers, critics, and authors of books for children and young adults. Here is a selective compendium:
Incendiary poet and playwright — or old man playing with matches? Champion of the disenfranchised — or racist, anti-Semitic homophobe? There was never a consensus on the merits of the prolific writer who was born Leroy Jones, began publishing as LeRoi Jones, changed his name to Amiri Baraka, and died on Jan. 9 in his hometown of Newark, N.J., at 79.
Regardless of what he called himself, the man was always going against the grain. Born into Newark’s black middle class, he dropped out of prestigious Howard University, then got a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force before melting into the bohemian hothouse of 1950s Greenwich Village. There he married a white woman named Hettie Cohen, who helped him found a literary magazine that published his work and that of many Beat notables. As his career took off — his poetry was gaining notice, his play Dutchman won an Obie Award, and he wrote perceptively about black music — he became increasingly radicalized. He shed his white wife and moved to Harlem, where he helped found the Black Arts Movement. The murder of Malcolm X in 1965 and Baraka’s savage beating by white cops during the 1967 Newark riot — which he called a rebellion — completed his radicalization.
The transformation, in some eyes, did not improve his writing. The poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth lamented that when the gifted Jones became the angry Baraka, he also became “a professional Race Man of the most irresponsible sort.” That dart resonated a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Baraka, then poet laureate of New Jersey, gave a public reading of his poem “Somebody Blew Up America.” It read, in part:
Who knew the World Trade Center
Was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
The poem’s anti-Semitic overtones led the New Jersey General Assembly to abolish the poet laureate’s post. Baraka fought the move in court, without success. Six months after Baraka’s death, his son Ras was elected mayor of Newark.
Peter Matthiessen could make just about anything interesting to readers. A restless naturalist who devoted himself to preserving the planet’s vanishing wilderness, Matthiessen produced more than 30 works of fiction and non-fiction on such subjects as Peruvian tribesmen, Long Island fishermen, Caribbean turtle hunters, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, Florida cane planters, a safari in Tanzania, migrant farmworkers, and Native Americans. His human subjects were joined by a menagerie of white sharks, snow leopards, shore birds, and other exotic species. Matthiessen, who died on April 5 at 86, is the only writer ever to win National Book Awards for both fiction and non-fiction.
His resumé was nearly ridiculous. A son of privilege — which made him uneasy — Matthiessen grew up in an apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park. He attended Hotchkiss, Yale, and the Sorbonne. In 1953 he co-founded The Paris Review, though it wasn’t until years later that it came out that the magazine was Matthiessen’s cover for his brief career as an operative for the C.I.A. He befriended a who’s Who of American letters, including William Styron, George Plimpton, and E.L. Doctorow. He became a commercial fisherman and a Zen priest.
Matthiessen’s last novel, In Paradise, was published three days after his death. He was a connoisseur of the world’s most unforgiving terrain right up to the end: the novel tells the story of a group of people who come together for a meditation retreat on the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
Too bad America hasn’t produce a satirist to skewer Ronald Reagan and the depredations he visited on America in the 1980s. England was blessed with Sue Townsend, a self-educated high school dropout whose fictional teenage misfit, Adrian Mole, got millions of readers to laugh at the highly Reaganesque bill of goods Margaret Thatcher sold to Great Britain during the 1980s.
Adrian Mole may have grown up in a chronically underemployed working-class family and he may have attended shabby, underfunded schools, but he learned to love royal weddings. In adulthood, he fell victim to predatory lenders and wound up living in a converted pigsty — a nifty metaphor for the fallout of Thatcher’s merciless policies. Townsend, who died on April 10 at 68, shared Adrian’s grim upbringing and his ambivalent view of the Iron Lady. “Sometimes I think Mrs. Thatcher is a nice kind sort of woman,” he tells his diary in 1984’s The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. “The next day I see her on television and she frightens me rigid. She has got eyes like a psychotic killer, but a voice like a gentle person. It is a bit confusing.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Few writers are as deeply loved by readers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature, though deserved, was almost beside the point. He had already earned a writer’s most treasured honor: the devotion of millions of readers around the world.
Like many of those readers, I came to his work through One Hundred Years of Solitude, a masterpiece of magical realism that I started reading on a fall day in 1974 and read straight through in two sleepless, nearly foodless, intoxicating days. The book changed my life, opened me to new worlds and new ways of seeing. As astonishing as it was — those all-night rains of yellow blossoms, those swamps of lilies oozing blood — I think Love in the Time of Cholera was an even better book. It teemed with fleshed-out characters and their potent emotions. It was less reliant on stylistic pyrotechnics and whimsy. It was earthier, meatier than its more famous predecessor. It showed us that love grows more solid the closer it comes to death.
Other readers will have good reasons for preferring one or more of the other 15 books by the amazing Marquez, who died on April 17 at 87, having achieved the thing all writers yearn for, whether they admit it or not: immortality.
Thirty-two years after Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration in 1961, Maya Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Those events stand as twin pinnacles in the power and prestige of American poetry. But Angelou, who died on May 28 at 86, will probably be even more vividly remembered for her searing 1969 memoir about growing up in the Jim Crow South, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, one of the six volumes that recount the story of her remarkable life.
After growing up mostly in Stamps, Ark., a small town brimming with “dust and hate and narrowness,” she traveled the world working as a dancer, calypso singer, streetcar conductor, prostitute, actress, magazine editor, college professor, and civil rights activist, associating with nobodies and with such notables as James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Oprah Winfrey, and at least two U.S. presidents. Her poetry was more coolly received by critics than her memoirs, but her influence was undeniable. In 2011 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And on the day she died, President Barack Obama remarked, “She inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.”
“Don’t try to fool an Indian who has seen a lot of white men.” So advises 111-year-old Jack Crabb, the unforgettable narrator of one of the greatest novels written by an American, Little Big Man. Its author, Thomas Berger, who died on July 13 at 89, will be long remembered for that astonishment of a novel, though too few readers realize that he produced two dozen others, as well as a sprinkling of stories and plays. In addition to the myths of the American West that he dissected so deftly in Little Big Man, Berger’s other great subject was the mores of the American middle class, whose deep-rooted paranoia he satirized wickedly in such novels as Neighbors (made into a 1981 movie starring John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd), The Feud, The Houseguest, and Best Friends. In these novels, routine social encounters have a way of morphing into comic horrors. A disciple of Franz Kafka, Berger’s range was vast. He wrote horror, pulp detective stories, science fiction, utopian fiction; he mined Greek tragedy, the survival saga, and the Camelot myth; he wrote about invisibility and time travel; his literary alter ego, Carl Reinhart, who appeared in several novels, was described as “representative of the unrepresented.”
Once highly sociable, Berger in his later years became a recluse in a league with J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon. Even his publisher and literary agent didn’t know how to get in touch with him. In a rare interview in 1980, Berger posed a rhetorical question: “Why does one write?” He answered, “I suspect that I am trying to save my own soul, but that’s nobody else’s business.”
Nadime Gordimer cast a wide net in trying to capture the iniquity and human cost of apartheid in her native South Africa. She crossed lines of race, class, religion, and gender, bringing to life the cinderblock mazes of the black townships, the poolside barbecues of white society, the terror visited on those who resisted society’s rigid divisions. She brought to life Indian Muslims and mixed-race characters. Her Booker Prize-winning 1974 novel, The Conservationist, had a white male protagonist.
Gordimer, who died at age 90 on July 13 (the same day as Thomas Berger), wrote two dozen works of fiction, personal and political essays, and literary criticism over the course of a 60-year career. Some critics saw her personal struggle for liberation from her possessive mother as a mirror of her characters’ struggle against apartheid. Though she insisted she was not political by nature, she became engaged in the struggle — joining the banned African National Congress, passing messages, hiding friends from the police, driving people to the border — and she used many of these events in her fiction. The authorities were not pleased, and they banned three of her books, including one of her best known, Burger’s Daughter.
On Feb. 11, 1990, after 26 years in captivity, Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison into the sun-washed streets of suburban Cape Town. The first person Mandela asked to see was Nadine Gordimer. A year later, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Mark Strand set out to be an artist. But while studying under the great colorist Josef Albers at Yale, Strand discovered poetry and embarked on a long and fruitful career that included a stint as U.S. poet laureate, a Pulitzer Prize, a Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and the publication of his selected poems last year. Strand, who died on Nov. 29 at age 80, was too dark for some tastes, but he insisted that his poems were “evenly lit.”
In the 1980s, after a decade and a half of publishing poems shadowed by death and dissolution, Strand became dissatisfied with the autobiographical vein of his work, and he stopped writing poetry. He turned to writing children’s books and short stories, books on the painters Edward Hopper and William Bailey, and a collection of critical essays. Late in life, he made collages with paper he had made by hand. Eventually he returned to writing a more expansive kind of poetry.
In a Paris Review interview in 1998, the year before he won the Pulitzer Prize for Blizzard of One, Strand mused about death: “It’s inevitable. I feel myself inching towards it. So there it is in my poems. And sometimes people will think of me as a kind of gloomy guy. But I don’t think of myself as gloomy at all. I say ha ha to death all the time in my poems.”
Here’s one such ha ha, moment from the poem “The Remains,” in Strand’s 1970 collection, Darker:
I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.
What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
I say my own name. I say goodbye.
The words follow each other downwind.
I love my wife but send her away.
My parents rise out of their thrones
into the milky rooms of clouds.
How can I sing? Time tells me what I am.
I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.
Kent Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) staked out his patch of literary ground and never stopped working and reworking it. Like William Faulkner (Yoknapatawpha County), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Macondo), Flannery O’Connor (rural Georgia), and Patrick Modiano (Paris during the Nazi Occupation), Haruf, who died on Nov. 30 at 71, became possessed by his chosen place. He called it Holt, a fictional small town on the high plains of eastern Colorado, a place of “pointless cruelty and simple decency,” where he set all of his fiction, including his 1999 breakthrough, Plainsong, and Our Souls at Night, which will be published posthumously in May.
Single-mindedness can lead to repetitiveness, and some critics noted that Haruf didn’t outdo himself with each new book; rather, he redid himself. One critic went so far as to compare Haruf’s prose to Pottery Barn furniture, with its “aged patina” and “rustic lines.” But Haruf’s many fans embraced the moral clarity of life in Holt — the town’s esteem for honest work, its belief in innocence as a virtue — and they saw the place as a refuge from the snark and irony and equivocation that fester beyond the rim of the high plains.
This list doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive, but there were a number of other literary deaths in 2014 that are worth mentioning. In alphabetical order they are:
Norman Bridwell, creator of the Clifford children’s books; James MacGregor Burns, an award-winning political biographer and student of the art of leadership; Mary Cheever, the long-suffering wife of John Cheever, who published a book of her poems in 1980, two years before her husband’s death; P.N. Furbank, a British critic and scholar best known for his biography of E.M. Forster; Mavis Gallant, a master of the short story whose great subject was rootlessness; Doris Pilkington Garimara, an Australian Aborigine whose book about the government’s brutal campaign to eradicate the native population, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, became the basis of the 2002 movie Rabbit-Proof Fence; Dermot Healy, the Irish novelist, poet, and memoirist regarded by many as a modern master in the mold of Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett; P.D. James, who became known as “The Queen of Crime” for her layered mysteries starring the dashing detective Adam Dalgliesh; Galway Kinnell, who won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for lyrical poems written to be understood, as he put it, without the help of a graduate degree; Alistair MacLeod, a Canadian writer whose lofty reputation was built on his single novel, No Great Mischief, and two collections of stories; the far more prolific Walter Dean Myers, who wrote more than 100 books, including best-selling children’s books centered on the lives of disenfranchised black kids; Alastair Reid, the peripatetic poet, New Yorker writer, and translator; Rene Ricard, an eighth-grade dropout, brilliant self-taught poet and art critic, painter, and movie actor, who Andy Warhol called “the George Sanders of the Lower East Side”; Louise Shivers, a late-blooming Southern writer who produced just two novellas but won rapturous praise and comparisons to Flannery O’Connor.
Through your words you will all live on.
Drawings by Bill Morris
In a cool, shaded bedroom in the southern city of Port Harcourt, my mother is lying on her back on the rumpled bed, a book held open over her face, her eyes burning into it. I’m three years old and I want her to love me. I want her to look at me right this moment — to tell me all the time how much I mean to her. I have been perched at the bed’s edge for some time, waiting to be noticed, watching the play of expressions on her face. When she quivers again with laughter I can’t hold back my curiosity any longer, and I ask, “Why are you laughing, Mama?”
No answer. I cannot understand what she finds so fascinating in that bundle of paper.
I raise my voice. “Mama! Tell me why you’re laughing.” My cry works: it draws her eyes to me. But they are bright with an emotion I know isn’t for me.
“Go and play with Boma,” she says. And then she mutters under her breath: “You’ll understand why I’m laughing when you can read.”
Boma, my younger brother, is a baby. He cries all the time. Right now he is in my father’s arms in the parlor — I can hear him wailing for attention, as usual. When he arrived he took away a chunk of the affection that I thought was only mine, and now this thing, this book that brightens my mother’s eyes and makes her giggle, is stealing what’s left.
I want to be a book. I want my mother to look at me all the time.
I decide to learn to read.
My mother and my father quarrelled over me yesterday. My father is teaching me to read, I asked him to, but yesterday he grew annoyed at my slow progress over the letter X and he smacked my bottom until I screamed for my mother. My mother took me in her arms, she said I was too young and he should go easy on me, that I was learning faster than many my age. He’s old enough — he shouldn’t have asked if he wasn’t ready, my father said before he slammed his study door.
I’m old enough.
Tomorrow I will try to be ready.
In a few weeks I will be four.
Crouched in a closed dark wardrobe, my heart pounding, I’m listening to the sound of feet outside. The footfalls sneak closer, stop in front of the wardrobe, and I strain my ears. I wait fearfully to be caught.
I’m six years old and I have no friends. Everybody loves Boma. He’s playful, friendly, and he’s not afraid of cats. He laughs all the time: a deep rolling laugh that sounds like a toy version of my father’s. He looks like my father too. Everybody says so. Then they ask me whom I resemble, why am I so quiet, why am I such a bookworm? That’s what Priye asked:
“Why are you such a bookworm?”
“Because books are exciting, stupid!” I snap at her. Then I feel sorry. Girls must always be treated nicely, my mother says.
Priye always comes over to play with Boma. She is the daughter of Uncle Sam, our next-door neighbor and my father’s best friend on the street. My father and Uncle Sam are chatting in the study, laughing out loud, and Priye is in my bedroom searching for me. Boma is hiding—we are playing hide-and-seek. I was reading The Snow Queen when Priye came, but after she asked me to join her and Boma in their game, I dropped my book. The Snow Queen makes me cold and sad and lonely. And no one ever asks me to play.
Now I’m crouched in the wardrobe, hoping to be found so I can return to my book.
Boma and I are on holidays with my father in a big empty house in the mid-western city of Benin. I miss my mother, who is back at home in Port Harcourt, and I hope she’s missing me too. My father has taken Boma out shopping, and I’m alone at home. I’m being punished for throwing a crying tantrum. Because my younger brother ran off with my book and I couldn’t catch him.
I’m nine years old and I’m afraid that my parents don’t love each other anymore.
Now I’m lying on my belly in my father’s bed. I’m reading The Old Man and the Sea.
I want to be a fisherman when I grow up. O to roam the seas with a book and a hook!
My mother refuses to buy me trousers. She prefers small shorts in bright colours: pink, lime green, powder blue. When I walk down my street the other boys tease me about the books I’m always carrying. They call me a girl because I read too much, because of my bright shorts and my smooth soft legs, and because I look like a girl. My mother tells me they are unruly little bullies. But still she refuses to buy me trousers. “Nobody bullies Boma,” she always says when I complain. But that’s because Boma never walks around with books. And he can fight.
But I don’t say this. I’m almost 10 and it’s a sin to rat on a brother.
I want to be a pirate when I grow up.
I’m in a classroom of boys and girls all shrieking with abandon. The teacher has stepped outside, and while my classmates rush about I remain seated at my desk. I’m reading a novel: Roots.
The series runs every night on national TV.
My mother’s friend, Aunty Gloria, lent me the book when I told her how much I feared for Kunta Kinte, how disappointed I was that the bad men were winning the good ones. I couldn’t wait to see the good men begin to win. In the fairytales the good men always win.
“Read the book,” Aunty Gloria said. “You’re old enough to learn how the world really is.”
I’m 10 years old.
A strong wind now blows the scent of sunlight through the open windows of the classroom, and it riffles the book’s pages. Then a shadow looms, the wind is blocked, and I look up. Gogo is standing beside my desk and frowning down at me. I’m worried, threatened by his presence, but I’m not surprised to see him. Gogo has been trying to pick a fight with me for the past few weeks, ever since I scored the highest in the English Language test. He hasn’t succeeded only because he’s the strongest boy in the class and it’s not considered cowardly to run from him. All this time I have been a running target, but now I’m a sitting duck. And I know that he knows it. I lower my eyes from his, and I hear him say, “What are you reading?”
“Roots,” I answer. Then I hurry to explain, my voice soft, trembling, ingratiating. “They show it every night on NTA. It’s the Kunta Kinte film.”
“Give it to me,” he says, and extends his hand.
I don’t like sharing my books, but I hand it to him anyway. Maybe he likes books like me.
No, he doesn’t. He closes the book and flings it across the classroom. It flaps through the open window and falls in the sand outside. Then he bends over my desk and laughs ha ha ha into my face. I feel like crying — I borrowed that book. You must take good care of books, my mother always says.
The class falls silent as I rise slowly to my feet. My face is burning and I feel like peeing. I know Gogo wants me to cry so he can laugh a real laugh, and this knowledge gives me the strength to fight back my tears. I step out of my desk and walk towards the window.
“Stop there!” Gogo yells, and though I flinch at his shout, I don’t stop. I can now hear him coming behind me — he is banging on desktops to frighten me. I reach the window, and then turn around, and he stops five desks away. His face is really, really angry.
“Did you hear me say stop?”
I don’t answer. I hold his gaze.
“Are you looking at me with bad eye? Do you think you can fight me, you son of a–?”
I am shocked.
Gogo has called me a dirty word that means my mother does dirty things.
I am angry too. Bitterness rises inside my mouth, and my hands are cold, my knees tremble, my chest is tight, but my fear is beginning to harden. I did nothing to him and yet he threw away my book and now he has abused my mother. I must say what I must say. I must spit out this bitter taste.
“You unruly little bully,” I say to Gogo. But he isn’t, not really, not little. He’s much taller than me, and he has muscles on his calves, his chest, his arms — the veins in his arms are like the ones in my father’s, it seems to me. Gogo looks exactly like I want to be someday: strong.
But right now, for the first time in my life, I’m ready to fight someone who isn’t Boma — all because of a book. I will be beaten, disgraced, and I know it, Gogo knows I know it, the whole class knows it, they are chanting, cheering me on, goading Gogo, and he lets out a kung-fu howl and charges at me. O Mama! But my book, my mother — I can’t run. I hold my ground until my teeth chatter, until I can almost feel his breath on me, and then my instincts revolt. I leap out his path and raise my hands to shield my face, but nothing, no blows, only a crash of glass and a child’s wail, and when I look up I see Gogo squirming in pain on the sand outside. He has run himself into the window and through the louver glasses. I feel a rush of fear, and then relief, a deep satisfaction.
The bad boy has lost.
My faith in the world’s order is now restored.
I’m ready to go back to reading Roots.
And so I climb out the window and pick up my book, shake off the glass, and go back in to meet the cheers of my classmates, boys and girls, who gather around and pat my back, stare at me with admiration. My head swells with pride.
Behind me, I can still hear Gogo crying.
On a quiet Port Harcourt afternoon, I’m rereading Lorna Doone for the seventh time when I hear a shout. It is Boma. I’m in our bedroom in my grandmother’s house, and there are adults outside so I don’t get out of bed, I don’t interrupt my reading, I hope Boma is fine. My mother is away in Ibadan studying for her university degree. I haven’t seen or heard from my father since he and my mother fought the last time in Benin City. Boma and my books are all that’s left of the home I’ve always known.
I’m 12 years old and I want to be an aeronautical engineer when I grow up.
Then the bedroom door flies open and Boma skips in with a two large shopping bags clutched in his hands. “Toys!” he cries excitedly. “The robot’s mine!” He dumps the bags on the floor, drops down beside them, upends one and spills out the toys. There’s only one father in the whole wide world who would buy so many toys. I tumble off the bed.
In the second bag there are books — a box set of The Hardy Boys, Burning Grass by Cyprian Ekwensi,
As we have every quarter for the last several, we’re looking at Barnes & Noble’s recent quarterly report to gauge the trends that are impacting the book industry – which books were big over the last few months and what’s expected for the months ahead. With a recession threatening, Borders faltering, and some even suggesting a merger between the two big book chains, 2008 is shaping up to be a rocky year for the book retailers.Barnes & Noble’s fourth quarter (which ended on February 2nd) was slightly worse than what analysts had expected, but the stock hasn’t been punished on Wall Street. Here are the highlights from CFO Joseph J. Lombardi from the March 20th, Q4 conference call (courtesy Seeking Alpha):”Fiction and the genres had a strong quarter, especially graphic novels and romance. Hardcover sales were driven by a host of familiar names, including Sue Grafton, Dean Koontz, Ken Follett, Stephen King, and a holdover from the spring, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns.”“Both John Grisham and James Patterson had two bestsellers; Grisham with Playing with Pizza and The Appeal, and Patterson with Quickie and Double Cross. Trade paper fiction was driven primarily by movie tie-ins and selections from Oprah Winfrey. Movie tie-ins included The Kite Runner, Atonement, and I Am Legend, and the Oprah recommendations for Pillars of the Earth and Love in the Time of Cholera drove the sales of those titles.” Pretty amazing that Grisham’s The Appeal was a bestseller when it came out only five days before the quarter ended. Meanwhile, Oprah continues to move books.“In non-fiction, areas of strength included biography, humor, health and diet books, as well as the continuing success of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. Other key hardcover titles included Stephen Colbert’s I Am America, Tom Brokaw’s Boom!, The Dangerous Book for Boys and its sequel, The Daring Book for Girls, and Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. Non-fiction movie tie-ins also included in non-fiction were Into The Wild and Charlie Wilson’s War.” The continued success of The Secret is somewhat disheartening.Aggressive discounts associated with Barnes & Noble’s membership programs continue to eat into the chain’s gross margins, but interestingly, so did “bestseller markdowns associated with the seventh and final Harry Potter book,” though to a lesser extent.In 2008, Barnes & Noble expects to face a double whammy of “recessionary pressures in this uncertain economic environment” and very challenging comparisons against the final Harry Potter book and improved hardcover sales last year.
Every three months I’ve been looking at Barnes & Noble’s quarterly conference call to get some insight into recent book industry trends and to see which books were the big sellers over the past few months and which are expected to be big in the coming months. Staving off a post-Harry Potter hangover, B&N’s quarter ended November 3 was boosted by several titles that got major media attention, sending readers into stores to get in on the action.Here are the highlights from CEO Steve Riggio on the Q3 conference call (courtesy Seeking Alpha):The most important factor now “is the effect of media on the book industry and on the sales of individual titles.”The company was “pleasantly surprised when the third quarter opened quite strong with the release of Stephanie Meyer’s Eclipse, which became the fastest-selling teen novel in our history.” It just goes to show, people love vampires.”Media coverage of adult books was more extensive then typical, led by two shows, the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes and Oprah Winfrey.”After feature stories on 60 Minutes, the publicity for “Alan Greenspan’s The Age of Turbulence, Clarence Thomas’ My Grandfather’s Son and Joel Osteen’s Become a Better You, and Valerie Plame Wilson’s Fair Game shot those books onto the top of our bestseller list.” In other words, it was a good quarter for books with the author’s picture on the cover.Meanwhile, the backing of Oprah led to “phenomenal demand” for books like Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious Cookbook, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, Cathy Black’s Basic Black, and Michael Roizen’s YOU: Staying Young. In other words, self help and cookbooks remain in the Oprah wheelhouse. The “Book Club” lives on as well, “even sending classics such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera to the top of bestseller lists.”And the last of the big media booksellers turned out to be Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, whose shows helped make a bestseller of Colbert’s I Am America (And So Can You!).Moving on to fiction, “it was a particularly good quarter for new releases for brand name fiction writers and those included John Grisham, David Baldacci, Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson and the return of Ken Follett with his World Without End.”Of course, with big media being the hand that feeds the publishers, the writers strike could limit promotional opportunities. “We are already hearing of cancellations of writers that were scheduled to be on some of the major talk shows.””Nevertheless, several books by brand name writers with new and forthcoming titles including Sue Grafton, Jim Cramer, Steve Martin and Dean Ornish” are expected to do well in the coming months.