On the road from Maine to California.
When I’m not driving, not admiring and commenting on the scenery, not jotting notes, not searching for a lunch spot or a site to visit, I read.
One of my daughters studies English in college, and since I studied French in college as well, I am always curious to know about the books she reads. She sometimes complains about a challenging or boring book or gets passionate about a great story or a new author.
These summer conversations remind me of the different ways I discovered a book or a writer and of the ways I still do.
Everything started in school with excerpts. Some stirred so much emotion inside me that I had to read more from this author. This is how I discovered Maupassant, Zola, and Camus. I followed the same pattern through my schoolgirl years.
At the university I had more novels, plays, and poetry to read than I could bear. I disliked some mandatory books. Um, I never liked Shakespeare that much. But I fell head first for Kafka, Gunter Grass, and Robert Musil. That was my German period.
Through college friends I discovered science fiction and dystopia and spent engrossing hours reading Frank Herbert and Robert Sheckley.
When my future husband and I met we realized that we owned many more books than clothes, CDs, and furniture combined. In Paris we patiently organized our books, first alphabetically, then by genre, but they ended up elbowing each other before agreeably cohabiting. I read his George Simenon and some of his Série Noire collection. He didn’t read much of my Michel Tournier or Albert Cohen. But we both adored Maupassant. So all was good.
My daily work commute took me from the north of Paris to the south and vice versa. The metro became my reading room. More than once John Irving or William Styron made me miss my connection, and when I finally pulled myself up I would made my way to the office, dazzled and dizzy, as if I had been tipsy, wondering why I had to go to work when there were so many wonderful stories to read.
In my first years in the States, still young, broke, and without friends yet, I basically camped at the library. Many books I read were accidents but some were enchanting accidents.
The works of Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, Anne Lamott, and Ian McEwan left me breathless.
Later, I was drawn to the stories of Jumpha Lahiri, Junot Diaz, or Chang-Rae Lee, like me immigrants making their lives in the US.
Friendships in adulthood are often the result of our children’s own friendships. Through my children and their friends I came to love children’s literature and the people who write it. Endless list!
Through other parents I heard from a new book someone had especially enjoyed. Like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society or The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
For my birthday or Mother’s Day I always ask for a book. Once in a while, one would leave me as dazzled and dizzy as in Paris when, engulfed in a story, I missed my metro connection. Blindness, The Cat Table or still The Book Thief have this power.
But today as I cross the Mississippi River straddling Memphis like a fat, placid reptile, I reflect on another way a good book can reach a reader.
One of my husbands’ friends has just offered me a book.
“I think you’ll like it,” he simply said.
I wasn’t so sure. My husband’s friend is my husband’s friend after all. How would he know what I might like? Besides, the cover of the book was very classic looking and didn’t reveal much of the story. But a gift deserves a chance, right?
Old Filth written by British author Jane Gardan was published in 2006. On the flap I read that she received prestigious awards and unanimous praise for her extensive work.
Yet I totally missed her. How did it happen? How did my husband’s friend know about the book? And how did he rightly suspect that I would love the story?
Because Old Filth happens to be one of the best books I’ve read. I finished it as we pulled into Oklahoma City and understood why my husband’s friend thought I would like that book.
Old Filth is the story of a man who at the age of eighty returns to the country where he was born and finds the peace he had been searching through his entire life.
Of course, a story about the meaning of home would talk to me.
I will have to tell my daughter about Old Filth, I thought. And also to trust people’s opinions about the books she might like.