My mom likes to say I outgrew the local library. The truth is, the town branch was always under construction and never had any books or parking, so we rarely went there. The library up the street was technically in Brookline, and just as they are snotty about Bostonians parking on their streets, so were the town managers picky about who borrowed their books. Kids from my neighborhood were charged exorbitant overdue fees if it took an extra day or week to return a Judy Blume, so we soon stopped going there. Instead, once a week my mom drove us to Westwood, a suburb twenty minutes from our house, to the small white clapboard building that housed shelves and shelves of books.
The librarians were nice, even to us city kids, and never put a limit on the number of books we could take out. I would stack them eleven, thirteen at a time on the counter, all which would be brought back read a week later. The Westwood Branch had paperbacks: I hated the shiny matte covers of the big library books, and even to this day, I only purchase hard covers when I personally know the author. Paperback books are my favorite: portable, friendly, and convenient.
I stayed up late nights reading Trixie Belden, Louisa May Alcott, And then, there’s Laura, Sweet Valley High. When I was seven, Nancy Drew’s mysteries scared me so badly that my mom claims I cried. But I never put the books down – I kept reading until the end.
When I got to Boston Latin in the seventh grade, I was anxious for the assigned reading that my babysitters complained about. Until I realized there were books I didn’t like. Julius Ceasar. Johnny Tremain. My outside reading took a sharp turn toward Danielle Steel and Stephen King. I still read all the time, voraciously, but it was more in rebellion against what my teachers assigned. Outside reading was my escape hatch, my guilty pleasure, a paperback folded under my Latin textbook.
There was a big distinction between what I wanted to read and what they wanted me to read, which I rebelled against at every chance. There were exceptions – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in the ninth grade, and understanding Shakespeare for the first time in the tenth grade makes A Midsummer’s Night Dream still a favorite. Every summer, we had a reading list, and every first week of September, I attempted to cram the last of the required texts into my brain. I cried the night before eleventh grade reading Grapes of Wrath. I reversed my opinion that Hemingway was an outdated sexist while reading A Farewell to Arms. I fell a little bit in love with Fitzgerald, and wished to live in the twenties.
That summer, however, erased all my good will, with a lineup of the following: Jude the Obscure, Hard Times, Sister Carrie, Babbitt. It was a summer of death and depression, each page more loaded and black than the prior. It was as if the school committee assembled this list with teenage suicide in mind; if our AP English students can survive this, they must have said, then of course they’ll all get “5”s next May. I entered my senior year with a secret stash of bodice-rippers, prepared for the worst.
Our text that year was The Story and Its Writer, and next to the Cheevers and the Hawthornes and the Updikes was a more contemporary short story. “Leo was from a long time ago, the first one I ever saw nude,” is the opening sentence of Susan Minot’s “Lust.” And for the first time in my life, I realized that interesting, racy, contemporary writing could actually be literature. I would never have to separate the two again.
A decade later, I still find myself pursuing the kind of interesting contemporary literature that intrigued me as a teenager. Defining and finding “good literature” is a difficult task. I rely on the recommendations of friends, and sometimes on the major book critics, but that doesn’t always work out so well. I resisted the Oprah recommendations as long as I could, but was surprised to find out that I loved She’s Come Undone, which led me on a semi-successful swing through Sue Miller, Anita Shreve, and Barbara Kingsolver.
I’ll spend hours in a bookstore, trying to figure out if the book I hold in my hands is one that I’ll love – or at least like enough to justify the $14 price tag. The only thing worse than spending money on a disappointing read is buying two unsatisfactory books. The chances of this happening to me, I’ve found, have increased exponentially in the aftermath of the Bridget Jones phenomena.
I came across a list of suggested books for authors, and treated it like my summer reading list – although this time through, when I don’t have to be graded on my efforts, I’ve attacked it voraciously. After three years of working at Harvard, I’ve finally put my access to their immense library system to good use. The results have been mixed: I always thought I’d love Lan Samantha Chang’s work. I don’t. Pam Houston’s Waltzing the Cat, on the other hand, left me feeling as if she'd climbed inside my head, duplicated what was in there, and put it on the page.
I want to talk about book. I’ve started dozens of unsuccessful conversations about The Corrections. I need a discussion about Thisbe Nissen and what holds me back from embracing her writing. “I had to quit my book club,” the woman seated next to me at a recent dinner party said. “I just can’t handle the Nanny Diaries crap that everyone else wants to read.” Moments later, her husband and I leaned behind our spouses to talk about Rick Moody’s collection of short stories.
There’s something magical about hearing an author read from his or her published work. I’ve sat on plastic chairs in an extra room at Wordsworth, stood among the leather purses at the Coach store for a New Yorker reading, scooted next to strangers in college dorm halls to hear people whose names I never knew stutter or sing through their own written words.
I lose characters. I forget plots. I mispronounce words I’ve only seen in print. I misspell authors’ names. I keep books piled beside my bed, under the television, in plastic bags, on shelves in the kitchen, above the computer, in my trunk, in my office, and in my head. I flip through the ones I’ve read a dozen times, and remember why I want to live in New Orleans, Brooklyn, Dublin. I go months without picking up a book, and then devour seven in five days. I wonder who has my copy of Little Altars Everywhere. I read, and I read, and I read again.
Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
10.7.02 @ 12:44a
I like to go out dancing,
My baby loves a bunch of authors
Lately we've had some friction
'Cause my baby's hooked on
short works of fiction
I was thinking just yesterday that I hadn't been to the library in ages...but then I realized I've hardly slacked off, reading newspapers, magazines, stage plays, screenplays, short stories, novels in progress, and the three boxes of books sent from Amazon.
I remember shrugging off an unmotivating English teacher in 9th grade by doing a book report on one of John Gardner's James Bond novels, and so she fired back with Ben-Hur. Ick. It was a better movie. But the following year, new teacher and new books.
This column goes hand in glove with Joe's on Killing Your TV. The library's free, folks. Take it for all it's got.
10.7.02 @ 12:57a
Just this weekend I was looking online for a public library book I read when I was about 13. I couldn't remember the author and wasn't really sure I remembered the entire title.
No one had it.
Then I looked up my small hometown library on the Web. And there, I found the book I checked out years ago.
Once I had the full title and author, I found the now out-of-print book on a used book site and bought it.
I can't wait to get it.
10.7.02 @ 9:40a
I remember one summer where I purposely checked out each book on the reading list from the main library in town and kept them the entire summer knowing that none of the others in class would actually buy the books to read them. The teacher was real happy about that one when she tried to quiz the class on their summer reading the first day. Fight the system baby!
10.7.02 @ 10:30a
The library is annoying as hell for a pack-rat like me, though. I hate not being able to keep the books I've read.
What book, Matt?
10.7.02 @ 11:20a
Adam, I agree with you. That's the same reason I hate going to libraries. If I like the book, I don't want to give it back. What if I want it later? I have to go find it again, rather than just pulling it off of my shelf.
10.7.02 @ 11:47a
I'm a packrat, but I love libraries. I want to know if I'm going to like a book before I spend money and precious shelf space on it. Libraries let me read a variety of things without spending money to buy them. I also just enjoy wandering through the stacks and picking up whatever catches my eye.
10.7.02 @ 1:55p
Adam, the book is called "The Serpent" by David Wiltse. It's an early novel of his that I always thought was just awesome. It's a murder mystery with some great plot twists.
10.7.02 @ 3:34p
Holy shit did I hate She's Come Undone. Ugh.
10.7.02 @ 4:20p
When I was little, I remember reading anything I could get my hands on. And in high school, I actually liked most of the things we read. Maybe because it was an AP course or because my teacher was a really cool 24 yr. old gay guy.
10.7.02 @ 5:19p
I used to love to read more than I do now. Actually, it's the time consumption which I can't handle. I remember the one book I started about 5 times before actually getting through it, Watership Down. I thought I'd hate it, but it's one of my favorites. I also love going back and rereading favorites. Southern Discomfort and Time Enough For Love are dogeared. Of course there's always my own novels...just sayin.
10.7.02 @ 5:32p
Matt, I recently went through the same thing with a book called Trying Hard To Hear You. Took me YEARS to remember the title, and when I did, it took me half forever to find a copy.
Robert, ooh, Watership Down. I love that one.
10.7.02 @ 5:35p
My two favorite books from growing up: "The Phantom Tollbooth," by Norton Juster and "Archer's Goon," by Diana Wynne Jones.
I still re-read them once a year.
10.7.02 @ 5:44p
Last Christmas I bought myself "The Polar Express." I remember it as my favorite Christmas story as a child. It still is.
10.7.02 @ 6:13p
Polar Express: soon to be a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks. I kid thee not.
The book that was my biggest bugaboo, and remains so: Ulysses. I made the most valiant attempt to date about eight years ago. Someday I will conquer that book.
Robert: I hear ya. When Heinlein was good, he was great.
10.7.02 @ 6:27p
It took me a few tries to stick with 1984 past the first 100 pages, but once I did I was in love. Great book.
10.7.02 @ 6:55p
If you think 1984 was good, you should read some of Orwell's other, lesser known fiction. I took a class on The Novel senior year of college and we each had to pick an author and read several of his/her works. I chose Orwell, and got to dig into some of the stuff he wrote centered around British Colonial India. He was a remarkable writer, and considerably talented beyond 1984 and Animal Farm -- both of which are exceptional in their own right.
michelle von euw
10.7.02 @ 9:13p
I have a much greater appreciation for Animal Farm than I did when I was 14. I think there's a lot of books that were ruined for me because I read them too early -- what did an eighth grader know about communism, or impotence? (The Sun Also Rises makes much more sense now that I know why Brett Ashley sleeps with everyone but the narrator.)
10.7.02 @ 10:15p
If you were an eighth grade boy, you would have known about impotence. Of course, today's eighth grade boys call it "erectile dysfunction."
Hands down, no book I read in high school beat To Kill a Mockingbird. It was probably the first "real" book I read and which resonated with me.
10.7.02 @ 11:29p
"The Awakening." That was mine.
10.7.02 @ 11:45p
I have a vivid memory of sitting at the laundry table in my basement (it was the only place in the house that wasn't 95 degrees - real Vermonters don't have air conditioning) the week before starting my junior year of high school, struggling through chapter worksheets for "The Scarlet Letter." I read every word and STILL needed Cliff Notes. I'll never read another page of Hawthorne unless I've got a gun to my head. I'm still not convinced he didn't just go through the dictionary to see how many incomprehensible words he could use.
10.8.02 @ 1:37a
When I was 12, my mom finally gave in and let me have an adult reading card. The librarian in our little town about had a stroke.
Libraries are like Christmas every day for me. I walk in and think "All this is for meeeeee???" Whenever I move, I usually get my new library card before my driver's license.
I have a road trip coming up, so it was off to the library for 2 audio books and about 10 CDs. Our library also lets you rent some videos 2 for a $1 - which isn't a bad deal, depending on what you're looking for.
I think Slaughterhouse Five is one of the books that made the strongest impression on me in school. That and Alas Babylon.
10.8.02 @ 10:08a
I will never read "The Scarlet Letter" again unless someone is paying me.
Russ, I keep swearing that someday I'm going to pick up "Ulysses" and read it, but everytime I have the chance I conveniently think of something else to read.
The book that I remember best from high school is "The Stranger" by Camus. I was convinced that someday I'd grow up to be an existentialist, bless my little 16-year-old heart.
10.8.02 @ 10:50a
I got through about half of "A Portrait of the Artist" when it stopped being a story and started being an examination of Joyce's feelings on Irish Catholocism. Up 'til that point it had been really good.
10.8.02 @ 11:12a
My albatross in high school was "Wuthering Heights." I remember readng this part where the someone has pages and pages of dialog written in that old English accent. I knew it was important, but for the life of me, I couldn't understand what he was saying. I got so mad I threw the book across the room.
I hated that book.
10.8.02 @ 11:14a
The Fountainhead was the shit for me. Amazing book. There was a recent USA Today article that listed Atlas Shrugged (Rand's next, more dense novel/tract) as the 2nd most influential book of the century, behind the Bible.
10.8.02 @ 11:44a
My albatross in high school was "Wuthering Heights." ... I got so mad I threw the book across the room.
You too? I had to read it in college and couldn't stand the whiny characters, especially Cathy. One day it was too much for me and I narrowly missed taking off my roommate's head with it.
10.8.02 @ 12:06p
It always seems that guys revere The Fountainhead. Personally, I really couldn't get into it.
10.8.02 @ 12:18p
Funny, it's a female writer.
10.8.02 @ 12:28p
I know. Bizarre, huh?
10.8.02 @ 12:39p
Depends on what she is saying, doesn't it?
10.8.02 @ 12:46p
Totally. But capitalism and inegrity are hardly interests that are exclusive to men. And she writes strong female characters. It's especially strange that it's one of my fave books, since I usually don't like most books by women authors. At least many of the ones I've read.
10.8.02 @ 2:38p
Funny story about me and The Fountainhead:
I'd only been in St. Louis a couple of days (upon moving here in '94) and didn't have much to do where I was staying (with family friends) so I grabbed The Fountainhead off their bookshelf (I'd skimmed it but hadn't started it), stuck it in the pocket of my jeans, and drove downtown to investigate this brewpub I'd seen in the phone book. I walked in the place, and took a seat at the end of the bar, next to a couple. I'd only been there a few minutes when my eavesdropping ascertained that the guy was telling his date about...The Fountainhead. I plucked it out of my back pocket and we talked Ayn Rand together over beers.
Uncanny coincidence, tho. I'm glad they weren't discussing War and Peace -- my pockets aren't that big.
10.8.02 @ 3:19p
A college prof and I had similar experiences on Ulysses: it took us each about four tries to get into the initial jungle of words, and then at a certain point the entire book just broke open. (For me it was the Aeolus chapter. For him it was the Circe chapter, which is surprisingly late in the book.)
Nowadays it's the book that makes me learn something new about it and myself every time I open it.
I still feel sheepish about calling it my "favorite" book, though. It sounds like I'm a pseudointellectual grad student with delusions of grandeur and elitism, and I'm not a grad student.
On the other hand, I've never managed to read past the first chapter of an Ayn Rand book. Something about it just completely failed to engage me, even though I admired the writing itself.
10.8.02 @ 3:48p
So am I right in thinking that Ulysses is more interesting than The Dubliners, which were some of the dullest short stories I've ever encountered?
10.8.02 @ 4:02p
Somewhere my grandfather had a signed copy of Ulysses.
10.8.02 @ 4:22p
I loved the Fountainhead from the 1st page. Well, once Roark speaks, at least. She is so good at manipulating you, through her words, into hating the people she hates, and loving the ones she loves.
10.8.02 @ 10:06p
The last book I threw across the room was Dune, by Frank Herbert. I knew it to be a science fiction classic, and I was determined to get something out of it. What I got was eleventy-six chapters of drivel with five chapters, right in the middle, of incredibly good sci-fi.
michelle von euw
10.9.02 @ 1:26p
Julie, the last book I threw across the room was Drinking: A Love Story. I left that out of the column, though, because the author recently passed away, and I felt guilty bashing her works.
10.10.02 @ 1:58p
The last book I threw across the room was Gap Creek by Robert Morgan. I picked it up at a book warehouse sale and thought I'd see what all the hype was about. I was so frustrated with that one that I gave it to Roger to read to see if somehow I'd missed the point.