"The hope! The guilt! The quest for shelving!”
This morning I started State of the Union, Nick Hornby’s novel about a married couple in crisis. The husband has just turned and fled–”running fast, as if for a bus”–from the threshold of their first marriage counseling session. Which got me thinking: What issues could send me and my husband, Paul, into counseling? We’ve been together for eons now; all sorts of rough edges have been sanded. But of course we have issues, everyone has issues. He’s bossy in the kitchen, laser-focused on getting the food to the table hot, which makes me feel like I’m just getting in the way. Which I am, in fact, doing. So I end up curled on the couch, reading, while he works. Not a good look, but do you see how I’m forced into it? I often wear his black socks even though he needs them for work. He asks me, “Can you not buy your own socks?” But he knows full well I don’t have time to buy socks; I’m far too busy buying books. He often says I buy a linear foot of books each week. I don’t know why, in his telling, it’s always a “linear” foot. Surely that’s better than a square foot? Maybe I don’t actually have a problem? (I know Paul, and I know that he wants me to now point out that in addition to hogging our family bookshelves, I stack my books on our dining and coffee tables, above our washing machine, inside our kitchen pantry, beside the fancy plates we got for our wedding, inside the cabinets where my clothes are supposed to be—which is my space, after all, so he gets no say in that—and inside one of the two cabinets designated for his sweaters. But his sweaters fit fine in the other one—he keeps them quite nicely folded, not scrunched at all—so he shouldn’t complain about that, either. Truth be told, he’s a model of restraint when it comes to complaining. With that said, the man buys a book, reads it, then waits to buy another book until he’s ready to read that one. I have to live with this monster.) Maybe you’re wondering, Julie, can you possibly read all the books you buy? The answer is absolutely not. I know I’m not alone; I know at least my good friend Nick Hornby (who’s never heard of me) can relate. He’s written these essay collections detailing his “struggle with the monthly tide” of books he’s bought and books he’s been meaning read:
Each essay starts with two columns: “Books Bought” on the left, “Books Read” on the right. As Sarah Vowell puts it in her introduction to the third book in the series, “The fact that [Hornby’s] Books Bought list is so often so different from his Books Read list makes his portrait of a real reader the most accurate I have ever seen. The hope! The guilt! The quest for shelving!”
Beneath these two columns, Hornby spends about 2000 words chatting about the books, or the World Cup, or his family, or his editors (with whom he at least pretends to have a highly contentious relationship). It’s all very charming. The only downside is the almost unbearable suspense when he buys a book that looks particularly intriguing and doesn’t read it that month. When will it show up in “Books Read”? When he does finally read it, will he like it enough to write about it in the accompanying essay? Should I buy it? SHOULD I BUY IT?
I lied. There’s another downside to these collections–an obvious one: my own Books Bought list grows as I read them, and, as we’ve already established, it’s a list that shocks the conscience even before those additions. I’ve been thinking that if I shared with you my own Books Bought and Books Read lists, I’d feel such shame about the minuscule percentage that I manage to read, I’d cut back on the buying. This would, in turn, silence my husband’s chiding. I doubt he’d say “linear 10.5 inches” more than once.
So here goes. During the past thirty days:
Hornby likes to say that reading begets reading; it also, of course, begets buying.
Never have I ever underlined as many passages in a book as I did in Ada Calhoun’s Also a Poet, a memoir about her difficult relationship with her father, the acclaimed arts critic Peter Schjeldahl. She’s devoted to him, she’s furious with him, she skewers him in the book. He responds by saying (a) she’s not wrong, and (b) he feels “irradiated now by [her] bravery and, by the way, tremendous talent.” I too have drafted a memoir (or much of one) about complicated family dynamics; it got a very different reaction from certain family members. More on that later, maybe.
Way back in another lifetime I worked for a judge for a year. She recently strongly recommended East West Street, by Philippe Sands. I worried that it would be dense, but I was wrong; and it raises a question I can’t stop thinking about: Are there dangers to elevating the prosecution of genocide, a group-based war crime, over crimes against humanity, which are focused on individuals? Sands makes a compelling case that, in fact, there are. He also mentions Clara's War: One Girl's Story of Survival, a memoir about the 20 months that Clara Kramer, then 15, spent with other Jews–18 people in all–hiding under the floorboards of a house in Poland during the German occupation. Those 18 included, it turns out, a relative of Hersch Lauterpacht, “the man who put the words ‘crimes against humanity’ into the Nuremberg trial” and the field of international law.
For reasons both worthy and a wee bit messed up in the head (is it normal to need to, time and time again, imagine myself as Jew trapped in Europe circa 1941?), I can’t pass up a World War II book recommended by a reliable source. So Clara’s War is now waiting for me behind the counter at the Brooklyn branch of McNally Jackson (a bookstore well worth massive expenditures of money; if we lose McNally Jackson, the sun will dim, I’m telling you).
Annie Ernaux won the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, so normally I’d turn and run because those books are intimidating. But hers are so slender, and the covers have such intriguing photographs, I couldn’t stop myself from reading three: Do What They Say or Else; Happening; and A Woman’s Story. They’re deeply personal, and they all eventually slam into you with their unmitigated truth. Happening is particularly memorable and essential. In it she relates her harrowing experience needing an abortion in France when she was twenty-three; it was illegal at the time. At the end of the book she writes: "I have finished putting into words what I consider to be an extreme human experience, bearing on life and death, time, law, ethics and taboo--an experience that sweeps through the body." Find me a more compelling reason for a book.
We took a beach vacation not long after I finished Also a Poet, and its lingering glow kept me from moving on to standard beach fare. So I brought Claudia Rankine’s Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric oceanside. If you haven’t read her Citizen yet, go do that; it will rearrange your molecules. My molecules felt relatively stable as I read Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, but it still has on page after page lines that made me stop in wonder, or stop and wonder, like her point that maybe the definition of genius is that someone has somehow "lived all our lives for us."
As soon as I finish State of the Union, I’ll turn to Alejandro Varela’s The Town of Babylon, the story of a professor who, shaken by his husband’s infidelity, goes to his twenty-year high school reunion and finds himself reconnecting with former friends. I’ve taken a sneak peak and boy, does it start strong. There’s this whole passage on page 7 about how our main character doesn’t think he’s better than everyone else (as his brother accuses), but does work hard to be “correct”: “I use LED bulbs. I don’t cheat. I avoid high-fructose corn syrup, and I keep plastics out of the dishwasher and refrigerator. I turn off the water while I lather my hands.” And yet everything’s a mess. I’m not doing the book justice—I need to quote a lot more, and we all know this message is already too long. Suffice it to say, I’m ready to follow this man anywhere.
If you’re interested in hearing more about the books I’ve read, please email me. If you want to know more about why I bought the books I did, please email me. If you, too, have a book-buying dependency, please email me. If you find yourself appalled by the mental image of my book stacks, no need to email, I’m well aware that you’re right.
Ta ta for now (I asked my daughter how to sign off, and she threw that out as a joke, but I’m kind of feeling it),