Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Love Letter to Books

(Note: I am not being paid to endorse this book. I'm not even sure where I got it, since I acquire books in all sorts of ways (mostly used bookstores) and then they ferment in my room until I rediscover them.)

I just finished reading The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield and it is one of those rare and fabulous books that reminds you of the magic of reading as a kid, "the lost pleasure of books".

The narrator of the book put into words what I couldn't:

"..I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. I still believe in stories. I still forget myself when I am in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same. Books are, for me, it must be said, the most important thing; what I cannot forget is that there was a time when they were at once more banal and more essential than that. When I was a child, books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of books (32)."

When I read books like this one I like to sat them down, but never far away, and stare off, savoring them. Look, I can pick that world up again in any moment! It's right there, in my lap by the pool, or by my bowl of cereal! I only do this with books I'm really loving. If I'm not loving them I set them down and stare off and think about the errands I need to run. When I started reading The Thirteenth Tale I was on a bus as I stared off into the distance, so the other riders must have thought I was pondering deeply or, more likely, car sick.

I am a recent graduate, currently living as a nomad. I am pretty proud of what a minimilist I am - I can usually pack my essentials into an easily managed suitcase and I own not a single piece of furniture. But one thing is always troublesome: Books. I have books separated into stacks, waiting to be read, sitting in my childhood bedroom. A box of anthropology texts I can't part with. An entire messenger bag full of books currently with me in Virginia. The last time I moved up to school (flying) I couldn't possibly pack all the books I wanted, so I left some with a friend who would be visiting me later. That is how important books are.

I should probably get a kindle, I realize that. But oh, how very electronic they are!

The Thirteenth Tale is a love letter to books, and specifically to the British novel tradition. It recalls a lot of my childhood/teenage reading: Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, The Secret Garden, A Christmas Carol, all favorites. There are rainy moors, and secret relatives, and (perhaps) ghosts and foundlings.  (In fact, it's a strange read, during a hot, humid, southern summer. Reading about chilly December rains and hot cocoa makes me wish for a blanket, even as I sweat.)

Maybe it's a bit of a guilty pleasure - shouldn't I be reading Jhumpa Lahiri or something, getting out of this Anglo-Saxon tradition, try something new? I do claim to be some sort of a international culture lover don't I? Shouldn't I be reading something feminist, or Asian or anything that questions the status quo?  Well, first of all, I am - the two books I read before (Tankborn, State of Wonder) both did that, in some way, and my next book in the line up is Alice Walker's The Color Purple.  (Update: I ended up picking up an E. Annie Proulx, getting depressed, and now starting A Tale of Two Cities - right back where I started from.)

And yes, I should be reading Harry Potter y la cámera secreta I've been working on in ages- what will I ever do if I return to South America and don't know the vocabulary for wand?! But The Thirteenth Tale is just so fabulous, no lover of books could put it down. It loves literature the way chefs love a good meal, commenting on every ingredient, every nuance. It revels a bit in the sensationalist, but didn't Shakespeare? And just as I am getting a little annoyed by the rather melodramatic and sometimes whiny narrator, the author slips in a cheeky little scene where another character teases her about trying to be a heroine from a novel and prescribes 20 pages of Sherlock Holmes a day to cure her of an overly romantic imagination.

So read it, everyone who as a kid thought a trip to the library was the highlight of their week. To those kids who walked out with giant stacks of books, who sometimes wished they were a Cratchit, or A Little Princess, or a Pevensie or any character from those fantastic British books. Pick it up on a rainy day, brew some tea, and lose yourself for a moment.

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