I love books. This has always been so. If we were to review my childhood via ViewMaster it would be fourteen clicks between variations on a theme: Elizabeth on the Couch with Book. Elizabeth Under the Covers with Book. Elizabeth on the Lawn with Book. Elizabeth Running Away From Home with Barbie Suitcase Full of Only Books. My parents — the very parents who gifted to me this love of words and language, who built our home of bookshelves — would have to take away my books as ultimate punishment, and even then I would read. I read bulletins and dictionaries and soap labels and cereal boxes. I read maps and comics and postcards and nutrition facts. I read for hours and days and months and years. Until suddenly I just didn’t read much at all.
The usual culprits came to play: college, work, responsibilities of real life, the numb-touch oblivion of social media at the end of a long day. I could make all sorts of excuses but really I just want to set goals. Which is why this year, to curb screen time, keep my mind moving, and reclaim my bookworm title, I am going to:
⤜ read one book per week, or three books a month
⤜ read an essay every other day
⤜ honor the Carden maxim: there’s little time for good books when you can be reading the great ones. Keep up with the classics.
⤜ more diligently maintain my reading log
and, in order to achieve all of the above,
⤜ banish all electronic devices from the bedroom
So far so good, though that last one’s tripping me up big time (bad habits die hard, and I can’t stop watching Elementary? Why do I love it so much? Help?) and tbh I got a major head start to my book tally right off the bat — every January my Morgan family heads to Targhee for the long weekend, and their ski trip becomes my own kind of readathon rapture. My packing list was basically 3 pairs leggings, 2 enormous sweaters, one bottle of OPI nail lacquer in Tickle My France-y, and 9 books, which my brothers-in-law found overly ambitious if not outright ridiculous, and of course it was. But it also worked.
Because here I am now now, 5 books the wiser and typing this very sentence with nails painted the prettiest dusty lavender nude. WIN. Also? There is method to my madness. When packing possibilities to read, I find the best equation works something like this:
50% NEW + 20% SHORTS + 10% REREAD + 20% SERIES = 100% SATISFACTION, GUARANTEED
New means entirely unread, totally unfamiliar and preferably book-length. Shorts are essays, poetry, short stories — stuff you can pick up with the odd 20 minutes to spare and read from start to finish. A reread is an old favorite, revisited, something you know you can escape to with a sort of melting content when you need a break from pushing your brain through new bramble. Series bridge the gap between new and reread, offering a continuation of something familiar. All together I find they make the perfect compendium for a weekend/nightstand/carry-on pick-and-choose. Here’s what I brought with me to the mountains:
1. Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith
Really very much not my genre of choice, but Rowling knows how to write a story and I’ve followed Strike & Ellacott since their Cuckoo’s Calling days with guilty abandon. This third installment is every bit as ghastly-gruesome, but in skipping the few chapters from the murderer’s P.O.V. I remained deliberately ignorant of the darker corners of the book and enjoyed every other page for the real delight of plot and character that are J.K.’s calling cards.
2. Bossypants by Tina Fey
Look, I know I’m late to the game on this one. And the real disclaimer: I’m not really a comedy person and have already been majorly disappointed by Fey’s bestselling shelfmates Poehler and Kaling, whom I find obnoxious at best. But I read a few Bossypants pages in the UNC bookstore last month while waiting for John, and I knew it would be the sort of road trip fare that can make five hours seem like two. On that count I was right (I only vaguely remember pulling through Idaho Falls?), but I also can’t say it was any kind of conversion. Two of the 26 chapters (essays?) I found remarkable. “That’s Don Fey” was poignant and powerful, a worthy tribute. “The Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter,” widely republished all over the social netscape, is I think near-perfect example of the modern essay form. The rest I can’t say I remember.
3. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
A student of mine, aghast I’d missed this Newbery novel in my own grade-school days, made sure I took along her copy for the weekend — and I’m very glad I did. It was a zippy read and pleasant, quirky in the style of my beloved E.L. Konigsburg, touching on serious matters with a sleight of hand I find difficult to match in YA these days.
“Sunset Towers was a quiet, well-run building. Neighbor greeted neighbor with “Good morning” or a friendly smile, and grappled with small problems behind closed doors. The big problems were yet to come.”
4. Rules for a Knight by Ethan Hawke
My aunt gifted me this wee clothbound book for Christmas, and it took me .2 pages to fall head over heels for it. Feeling he may not return from the next day’s battle, Sir Thomas Lemuel Hawke (imagined ancestor of the author) writes a letter to his four children in an attempt to leave with them a record of all he knows. The twenty tiny chapters cover topics like solitude (“In silence, we can sense eternity sleeping inside us.”), humility (“Never announce you are a knight; simply behave as one.”), and gratitude (“The only intelligent response to the on-going gift of life is gratitude.”), each one beginning with an illustration by Hawke’s wife Ryan to accompany a proverb that introduces and summarizes the main point of the story that follows. It is a charming little guide to what gives life meaning and beauty, easy enough for grade school and just as engaging for adults. I am reading it out loud to my sixth graders during our lunch hour this month, entirely intent on doing the same for my one-day children in the some-day future.
“A knight does not protect the truth; he lives inside it and the truth protects him.”
5. Pigeon Feathers by John Updike
NEW and SHORTS
I realized a few weeks ago that my literary landscape was devoid of any Updike, so when this pretty hardback showed up on the secondhand shelves for two dollars I figured I’d make amends. Still haven’t got around to it.
6. When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams
SHORTS and REREAD
A reread on permanent rotation; I like to have T.T.’s essays nearby for any odd minute to spare.
“Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.”
7. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Another reread, and my quiet eulogy to Alan Rickman’s passing. Absolutely every single Austen Heroine quiz I’ve ever taken (and, you guys, it’s like . . . a lot) has named me a Marianne even despite all conniving for my Bennet namesake, and the first time I was able to watch Emma Thompson’s S&S with full-fledged thrum of the heart for Colonel Brandon was, I think, the first real moment I realized I’d crossed over into adulthood.
“Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims.”
8. Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian
If you’ve never read an Aubrey/Maturin novel, move Master & Commander to the top of your list. They’re delightful high adventure tempered by philosophical rumination, topped off with ribbing good word play and quite ultimately the best-written friendship in fiction. I do have to read with A Sea of Words at my elbow for quick reference in the more nautically-driven episodes, but that’s more a bonus than anything. Also, moments like this:
‘Let me look to your pistols,’ said Jack, as the trees came closer to the road. ‘You have no notion of hammering your flints.’
‘They are very well,’ said Stephen, unwilling to open his holsters (a teratoma in one, a bottled Arabian Dormouse in the other). ‘Do you apprehend any danger?’
‘This is an ugly stretch of road, with all these disbanded soldiers turned loose. Come, let me have your pistols. I thought as much: what is this?’
‘A teratoma,’ said Stephen sulkily.
‘What is a teratoma?’ asked Jack, holding the object in his hand. ‘A kind of grenado?’
‘It is an inward wen, a tumour: we find them, occasionally, in the abdominal cavity. Sometimes they contain long black hair, sometimes a set of teeth: this has both hair and teeth. It belonged to a Mr Elkins of the City, an eminent cheese-monger. I prize it much.’
‘By God,’ cried Jack, thrusting it back into the holster and wiping his hand vehemently upon the horse, ‘I do wish you would leave people’s bellies alone. So you have no pistols at all, I collect?’
‘If you wish to be absolute, no, I have not.’
9. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
The last time I had a thought to read this book I was packing ARCs for cover copy in the Bloomsbury office — three years ago. Whoops. Still unread but next on my list, and for as much as I disliked Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love I have nothing but highest hopes for the botanist heroine promised here.
Next on the nightstand: West With the Night by Beryl Markham, Patrick Madden’s Sublime Physick, and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.