Saturday, December 1, 2012

portrait of a reader.

Winner of the National Book Award was an impulse purchase at a local bookstore a few weeks ago.  I have books in my apartment I haven't read and yet, with Thanksgiving-weekend-layover travel in my future, I decided that I needed something new and entertaining.  This was on the shelf of books recommended by book store employees and described as clever and hilarious.  So.

It takes place in Rhode Island, on a single day where the state is bracing itself for a hurricane and local librarian Dorcas Mather, who has by choice lived a life of the mind, has gone in to work to prepare the building and to batten down the hatches from there.  Abigail, her spiritual opposite-best friend-twin sister, has lived a passionate life of the flesh in every way imaginable and has recently co-written a biography about the murder of her husband--which she committed.  Each chapter is structured around Dorcas hesitantly reading an excerpt of Abigail's book (actually written by their friend Hilda, whose style reminds me of Rita Skeeter, for any Harry Potter fans out there, which in turn critiques the publishing industry a bit) and then telling her version of what happened.  I was kept laughing out loud throughout my LaGuardia and Reagan National Airport adventures.  It did get me thinking about a few things, though. 

The story's structure was about Abigail and her escapades, but the book was truly about Dorcas--as a person and as a reader.  Dorcas' story asks the reader of the book if it is enough to have a life of the mind, as she honestly paints her own portrait of the Mather family's life alongside Hilda's version. There are a few moments in the story that Dorcas herself wonders if her life choices have been enough and it is fascinating to watch her wade through her reflections, especially as a voracious reader and sometimes-homebody. 

"C.S. Lewis assured me I wasn't neurotic.  It was possible to lives an imagined life, and to live it fully.  To dwell within one's own mind and, through books, the mind of others." 

"I escape, when I feel the need, into what all you bullies insist is reality.  I study birds, library patrons, local politicians.  Sometimes I garden.  Sometimes I watch the Sox. Sometimes I drink.  I keep a neat house and I pay my taxes, all in the real world. But I don't live there." 

"I am simply an omnivorous reader, and like all good omnivores I take my pleasures where I can find them.  In my real life, my inner life, I am as great a sensualist as my sister."


I am getting ready to make my 6th Annual Year in Review, a list of my top ten books of the year which I compile while sitting at my parents' house each Christmas break, rereading each blog post I wrote during that calendar year.  It never fails to strike me that the moments I choose to write about from each book paint a picture of my own inner life throughout the year.  In Winner of the National Book Award, Dorcas kept secret records as a librarian, written in code, of the books her regulars checked out.  She didn't feel guilty about it because she knew her motives were pure--and "the privacy of my patrons' reading history is sacred."  But she realized that her index cards were "concise historical records of a perculiar sort, outlining the spiritual and intellectual course of a citizen's adult life."   

So, my challenge to you is to think about the story that your year of reading tells.  What kinds of stories were you drawn to? What kinds of things were your eyes apt to notice this year--that perhaps at another time you might have passed right by? I would love to know your best reading experiences of 2012--I am always looking for good recommendations.  

1 comment:

Mary Elaine said...

So, I read this book several years ago, and while I remember liking it, I don't remember it that well. I do remember that my mom picked it up while staying with us and really enjoyed it. Both her review and yours makes me think I didn't give it enough of my mental energy. May have to go back to it.

BTW, I notice "Geek Love" is on your "to read" list. That is a book I remember well. Out there, but in a very compelling, thought provoking way. I hardly ever run across anyone else that has read it, so I will be eager to hear your thoughts.

Great blog, Kristen. I will get back to you on your question about great reads of 2012, as I have not had a chance to reflect. The only thing that comes immediately to mind is a work of non-fiction--The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Not only the best read of my year, but possibly one of the top three non-fiction reads ever for me. How it relates to my year will be obvious to you, but how it helped me to understand, process and begin to make peace with what we have been through is another whole story. It gets my strongest recommendation. As for fiction, I will gladly get back to you.