I own many books. I have piles of magazines going back I don’t want to say how many months. Reading material covers every surface in every room I live in. I belong to the Mechanics’ Institute, whose wonderful library has a terrific Fiction selection, and every time I visit the second floor, I pick up a hardcover or two.
So why, when asked who my favorite authors are or what I’ve enjoyed reading lately, do I draw a blank?
Oh, I can come up the usual suspects. I wrote my senior thesis on Nathaniel Hawthorne and – yes, it’s true – The Scarlet Letter is one of my favorite books. As is The Great Gatsby. I love Alice Munro’s stories (what writer would claim otherwise?) and when the world looks daunting, I cleave to Jane Eyre.
My love of Rebecca at age thirteen caused me to bond with Leslie-down-the-street, now one of my dearest friends. I can feel the sand cooling beneath my feet as I lay on the beach in Amagansett, New York, in 1993, reading Lonesome Dove for hours, as summer afternoon turned into evening. And I recall, on the train back to Penn Station the following day, reading the final pages over and over because I wasn’t ready to leave Gus.
You’d like a more recent example? Can we come back to the question in a minute? Oh, did I mention Alice Munro?
In junior high, answering questions such as What’s your favorite song? or What TV shows do you watch? dictated social standing for the rest of the year, and if you answered “Seasons in the Sun,” say, or Mary Tyler Moore – well, better get used to eating lunch on the far benches.
We’re a long way from seventh grade, but I feel a similar peer pressure when asked what I’m reading. A self-inflicted peer pressure, of sorts: As a writer, I’m supposed to name someone clever, literary, possibly obscure. I’m supposed to be selective in my tastes. (Which, of course, have changed. I went through a serious Pat Barker phase around the time of her Regeneration Trilogy and count her character Billy Prior as one of the most indelible I’ve ever encountered; I haven’t read a book by Pat Barker since a disappointing novel in 2001.) I’m supposed to keep up with the literary chatter over Who’s Great Right Now.
All of which makes me want to run in a corner. With a book, OK, but not necessarily the latest by one of the 20 under 40.
The best way to learn to write, everyone knows, is to read, read, read. Sometimes when I read, I wish I were a dentist or a marine biologist. No more thinking I can do better than that or I’ll never do anythng that good. No more analyzing of narrative structure or balance of backstory to present-day. As a writer struggling with such concerns in my own work and as a teacher pointing out what works well (and what doesn’t), of course I can learn. But often the sheer volume of Published Writers on my shelves seems daunting. We did it, so can you – on a good day. We did it, you didn’t– on a bad. As a child, I read because I loved getting swept into other worlds – whether the writer was literary or not. I learned about structure and character development along the way — and yes, I thought, I want to do that! — but I didn’t read to analyze. Now, when asked the question Who do you read?, I anticipate the follow-up, in my own mind if not in the questioner’s: And what have you learned from that?
The books I’ve most enjoyed lately are those I picked up randomly, without hearing or reading about them ahead of time. Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones, and The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe, for example – books that would have completely escaped my radar if I hadn’t picked them up at a vacation rental or a giveaway shelf at church.
And maybe that’s the trick: serendipity. Nothing wrong with reading Michiko’s top-ten list for the year (few surprises there). No fault in asking fellow writers their thoughts – after all, a friend in my writers’ group suggested David Vann’s Caribou Island, a taut, terrific novel with the gutsiest ending I’ve ever read. But when I want to curl up and read for the sheer pleasure of reading, the book I’ve never heard of fits the bill. Sometimes, I just want to read.