I am reading (on my phone, in a hotel in a distant city, in the middle of the night because I can’t sleep even though I have to teach a class in the morning) a New York Times article about how e-books have yet to supplant paper books, when I am struck by the illustrative photo. Two stacks of books on a shelf, 16 tomes in all, at Common Grounds bookstore in DeKalb, Illinois. Nothing too exciting about that, until I realize that I have actually read three of these books. This surprises me because I routinely assume that most of the world would have no interest whatever in the books that tickle my fancy.
Indeed, I tend to think of my literary preferences as a bit off center. For one thing, after years of reading novels, I have more or less left fiction behind, abandoned with the things of youth. There is just too much knowledge out there awaiting my consumption (a word that conjures up images of both Mark Strand and Archibald Macleish) and application to, well, the meaning of life. I’ll add this to the list of things that my father warned me about but that I blithely ignored until I was well into my fifth decade and finally began to see things his way.
As for my reading habits, I divide them into “house books” and “car books.” We do a lot of long distance driving, and my wife spends most of the time behind the wheel. So whenever I acquire a book that I believe may interest her, I save it to read aloud while she is driving. Books that I believe she would find boring I read by myself at home. There aren’t too many house books, for the practical reason that we live in a tiny house and I simply can’t concentrate with the TV always being on. This may change as the weather warms up, as the other renters on the property have brought chairs and tables into the garage. I may make that my private refuge when they’re not using it.
The photo in the Times reminded me of my wild and wooly novel-reading days. The pictured books I have read are Jonathan Franzen’s creepily realistic The Corrections, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days and George Carlin’s When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? Fond memories of years gone by are associated with each of these, but I have no intention of going back there. History, autobiography, memoirs and social science have my attention these days.
My current “house book” is Kory Stamper’s Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. On deck is Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. After that, I plan to attack a doorstop-length biography of Harry S Truman that has been sitting in the bedroom jeering at me since I purchased it at the Truman Museum in Independence, Missouri a couple of years ago.
In the car, we are reading Lars Eighner’s homelessness memoir Travels with Lizbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets. Before that, my wife and I read another memoir, I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives (Ganda, Alifirenka and Welch).
I am encouraged by the inclusion of several memoirs in the Times bookstore photo, most notably George W. Bush’s Decision Points and Bill Clinton’s My Life. Now, I’ve never thought highly of Bush the warmonger or Clinton the sex fiend, but curiosity got the better of me and, in my insomniac state, I took the opportunity to read the first few pages of the Bush memoir on amazon.com. To Bush’s credit, he admits that he focuses on what he sees as the most critical points of his presidency rather than covering every detail of his life. Still, he starts with a description of his childhood and high school years that he wraps up in about fifteen pages. This makes me a bit sheepish about having written an entire book-length memoir of my childhood.
Then again, I’ve never been president. Perhaps my childhood is the most interesting part of my otherwise bland life.
My favorite moment of Bush’s brief description of his childhood is the time he visited his wealthy grandparents in Greenwich, Connecticut, had to wear a coat and tie to dinner, and was disappointed to find a bowl of red soup with a glop of white in the middle at his place setting. Bush found it awful, which he attributes to the fact that he was brought up on peanut butter and jelly, not borscht.
Among the most important elements of any book is the ability of the reader to relate to the protagonist. I am certain that I’d be disappointed by Decision Points and I won’t waste my time reading it. I simply lack the requisite empathy for oil and Wall Street wealth, and he who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. After all, I was raised on borscht, if only at Passover. Also, lox, herring in cream sauce, chopped liver, gefilte fish and matzo balls.
Peanut butter and jelly I didn’t discover until high school, where a triple-decker version was a cafeteria standard.