Every now and then a book comes along that is held in such universally high regard — great reviews, staggering sales, ebullient word of mouth — that I don’t feel the need to read it. Somehow I missed it when it first came out, and then time went by and, for reasons I can’t explain, the moment passed. Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, was just such a book. It sat high on the New York Times bestseller list in hardcover for 135 weeks. Why should I read it when clearly everyone else in the world already has? Because it’s so impossibly good, that’s why. My friend Maile Meloy sent me the audio book. I like to keep an audio book going for cooking and exercise, and from the opening chapter I was hooked. A seemingly impossible true story of survival in war time, it was an inspirational nail-biter of the highest order. I immediately bought three copies for friends I knew would love it, and they hadn’t read it either, and they were all as riveted as I was. That got me thinking, maybe we aren’t the only four people left in the world who haven’t read Unbroken, which is why I think it’s worth mentioning, in spite of the 135 weeks.
And speaking of Maile Meloy, the sequel to her much beloved The Apothecary is out now, and the new one, The Apprentices, lives up to the original in every way. Janie and Benjamin are reunited in another effort to save the world. Please forgive the cliche, but these books are great for kids of all ages. Janie and Benjamin are smart, inventive, and brave, and while the soaring plot makes our hearts beat faster, there are also a few chemistry lessons, along with geography and world history, thrown in as well. It is a book that sharpens young readers’ minds while keeping them blissfully entertained.
Of the many great things about the bookstore business, it’s made me a much more current reader. Sure, it took me two and a half years to make it to Unbroken, but being in the store and browsing (and yes, I do it several times a week) is always leading me to books that I would have otherwise missed. Browsing is how I found my favorite book of the summer, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. At first it seems like it’s going to be one of those smart, wacky books about families, but it just keeps getting deeper and darker and more complicated, turning in ways I never saw coming (and still managing to make me laugh.) If you missed the front page rave review in the New York Times Book Review by Barbara Kingsolver, well, good. Don’t read the reviews on this one. Don’t read the flap copy. Just read the book and let yourself be surprised. It really is a magnificent piece of work. My greatest joy has been handing it to people and telling them they have to read it. They keep coming back to tell me how much they loved it.
As much as I love being current in my reading, I sometimes I feel the need to go back. I do very little rereading as a rule just because there isn’t enough time, but lately I’ve been craving certain books from my past. A plot gets stuck in my head like a song and starts driving me crazy. I’ve been thinking a lot about Saul Bellow. Does anybody read Bellow anymore? When I was in my twenties I went to my local bookstore for the new Bellow novel the way kids would go for the new Harry Potter — on publication day. My favorite was Humboldt’s Gift, which I read when I was still in high school. That was a long time ago, and so I decided to go back. Now here’s the question: am I recommending Humboldt’s Gift or am I just telling you what I’ve been reading? I’m not entirely sure. I know I loved it, but it’s a book that wouldn’t be written today, in the same way Taxi Driver is a movie that wouldn’t get made today. It’s a sweeping, testosterone driven, intellectually rigorous mash-up of misogyny and all matters of political incorrectness. It’s awful in some ways and brilliant in many ways. It won Bellow both the Pulitzer and tipped the scales for his Nobel. It’s not a book to be forgotten.
After Bellow, I wanted to reread Lore Segal. It felt like a natural progression. Segal’s book, Her First American, is one I loved when I first read it and I loved it even more the second time. It’s a book I often give to writer friends. It’s too quirky to be well known, and many of the best read people I know have missed it. The two main characters, Ilka Weissnex, a young Jewish refugee from Europe after the second World War, and Carter Bayoux, a black intellectual journalist and alcoholic, are two of the most perfectly drawn characters I’ve read. Or to put it another way, they feel like two people I know. Their tenderness and humanness and honesty are astonishing. It’s a book I want to read every time there’s a book I want to write because it will always remind me to do a better job.
Two months ago I read Mr. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell (who also wrote the wonderful Son of the Morning Star). Now I’m reading Mrs. Bridge. I’ll finish it tonight. There was an article in the Times last week about a camp for adults who were trying to detox from electronic devices, and I couldn’t help but think that Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge (someone told me they’re supposed to be read in that order and I did it backwards) would be the perfect books to read if you were trying to imagine a life without an iPhone. There’s a peace about them, which is not to be confused with happiness. Life just ticks by for the Bridges. Change presses against them and they do their best to close their eyes and shut it out. I feel like my blood pressure dropped every time I picked these novels up.
I got to give the keynote address at the American Library Associations’ convention in Chicago two weeks ago. I was supposed to talk about the writing life but I talked about the reading life instead. These days reading and writing feel very connected to me. Recommending books, reading books, thinking about books, it’s really all I want to do, and if I can’t talk about those things with a group of librarians, who can I talk to? Ah, yes, I can talk to the smart readers who work at Parnassus, and the smart readers who come in the store to find a book they’re going to love, and all the smart readers who read this book report. Come in and visit. Maybe it’s just summer, but the store dogs have been tremendously lazy lately. They mostly hang out in the back office, taking naps under desks, but if you ask we’d be happy to wake Lexington or Sparky up and make them go and pick out a book for you. They are partial to the ones on the lower shelves.
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Published: Random House, 11/2010