I’ve been traveling these past ten days, and that means I’ve been getting a lot of reading done. I believe I am at least 10% smarter at 37,000 feet, but that may be because I know the phone isn’t going to ring and I don’t need to flip the laundry and I can’t check my email (well, that’s not entirely true: I was a little horrified to discover that I can now check email on American.) Of course I brought a lot of books with me.Looking back on what I read, I realize it fits nicely into that famous burden of superstition for brides: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. Poor brides, as if they don’t have enough to worry about. Perhaps we could start a new trend of sending women down the aisle with a satchel of books.
On the first flight out to give a talk at Stanford (changing planes in Dallas to the lovely San Jose airport which is so much better than flying into San Francisco) I read The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling. The terrific Andy Brennan at Parnassus had special ordered it for a customer and when I saw it sitting there I thought, how is it I’ve never read The Jungle Book? Spending time in a bookstore is a constant reminder of all the things I haven’t read, so I asked Andy order a copy for me as well. (We carry it now, don’t worry.) It would not be an exaggeration to say that flying over Oklahoma my eyes were filled with tears for the sheer beauty of the writing. This is not a silly Disney film. This is not an act of British Imperialism. This is a stunning book which is appropriate for children but should not be limited to them. Bagheera, Kaa, Rikki-tikki-tavi, are some of literature’s greatest animals. There were 700 people in the auditorium at Stanford that night and I asked for a show of hands, how many here have read The Jungle Book? I saw four hands go up. There’s nothing more exciting than reminding people to read a book they figured they could skip because they saw the movie. And while we’re on that subject, read Pinocchio. Seriously.
I had my pal Rick Kot at Viking get me a galley of Penelope Lively’s novel, How It All Began. It just came out this week. I started it in my hotel room in Palo Alto. I had a good bit of downtime, only one talk to give in the afternoon. Like most people, I tend to read in bed at night, but what a pleasure it is to read in bed in the morning! No reason to get up! No work until noon! The Lively book is that rarest of things, a book that is both smart and cheerful. Reading the jacket copy, it doesn’t necessarily sound like this is going to be the case — an older woman is mugged, her hip is broken, people’s lives are rearranged as the ripples of this single act of violence spread – still, I found myself smiling again and again, mostly at the character Charlotte’s thoughts about books and the comfort she takes in reading. I took the book with me back to the San Jose airport (still loving both the airport and the book) and onto the flight to Portland. By the time I was in the Portland hotel I was close enough to the end that I had to finish. All the various threads in the novel wove together beautifully. This is a hard thing to pull off, trust me. I brought this book back to Nashville to give to a friend who had just been run over by a car.
I gave a talk in Portland. I spent my free time with my friend Anne and her dog Stella. We saw The Muppet Movie, which was a mistake. I then read a truly terrible novel which has not yet been published. A bigger mistake. I will not speak of the terrible novel. I read it on the plane from Portland to Denver. I finished it and was angry at myself for finishing it. In Denver I abandoned this bad novel three times, thinking that maybe someone else would find it and like it, and three times some kindly person said to me, “Are you forgetting your novel?” They called to board the flight. I waited to be the very last person on the plane, then dropped the book beneath my chair and made a run for it.
There was, of course, a blizzard in Denver and all flights out were delayed. It gave me the chance to start another book. This one I had borrowed from my friend Adrian Nicole LeBlanc who wrote the seminal book about urban poverty, Random Family. I LOVE Random Family. She had told me about Katherine Boo’s new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which wasn’t out yet (though it is now). Adrian had blurbed it so she had an early copy to loan me. Katherine Boo writes about issues of poverty for The New Yorker and is, along with Adrian, the well-deserved winner of a MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is about the slums of Mumbai. In Denver, it was snowing so hard they kept canceling the flight to Aspen I was supposed to be on. At one point they put half of the people on the plane, changed their minds, and then took them off again. I didn’t care. I was reading. They told us they would try to fly to Aspen and if they couldn’t land they’d turn around and try to land again in Denver. This is an important point: I would not have thought that a book about the slums of Mumbai would engage me to the point that I would be oblivious to the possibility of my own death. Boo gets deep into the personalities of the people she follows. She paints a story of poverty, humanity, limitless corruption, and yet somehow manages to keep her touch light enough to make it bearable. The plane landed in Aspen. I was reading as I walked through the snow. While I was there I didn’t ski. I read about Mumbai.
In Aspen, I visited the terrific independent bookstore, The Explorer. I love this store. It’s in an old house with big, comfy chairs and a giant gray cat and a great restaurant upstairs. The cat will come up and bump against your leg while you’re eating, which is a little shocking but not displeasing. Even though I own a bookstore, I had come to buy a book. Based on the rate at which I was reading, I knew that Behind the Beautiful Forevers would only get me to Chicago where I had to change planes. I would need one more little book to make it home. So I bought a copy of Alan Bennett’s new book, Smut. First off, I love Alan Bennett; The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Uncommon Reader are two of my favorites. Not only are they perfectly written, they are masterworks of pleasing design (thank you, Picador.) If you get this book on your e-reader, you’re going to miss the lovely blue cover sprinkled with teacups, though when I say this book is blue, I am not referring to the cover, I am referring to the smut itself. Smut is just dirty enough, it is the perfect balance of dirty and very properly British. It is extremely funny and as neatly pieced together as a Swiss watch. It was the book I felt I deserved after reading about Mumbai. I gave a reading at The Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, and so ended my trip. By the time the plane touched down in Nashville I had finished my book. I thought of 10 people I was going to send Smut to. Both of my parents and my mother-in-law were on the list.
It is heaven to be home again and back at Parnassus, but I feel a little wistful thinking I will be reading more emails than books this week. It was good while it lasted.
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Published: Scribner, 2/2004
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Published: Random House, 2/2012