Tuesday, December 01, 2009

“What have you been reading?”

I really have to find a different question. To avoid small talk, I ask acquaintances and family members, after an absence, what they have been reading. No question seems to cause more distress—more shifting eyes, more evasive mumbling, more apologetic explanations, more confessions of professional overload and boredom. What to do about Iran would be an easier question for most people.

Not one person in a hundred keeps to a reading regimen. Every American over the age of thirty-five exercises regularly, or feels volubly guilty about not doing so. But almost no one approaches middle age with the ambition of getting around to George Eliot at last. Ask someone his favorite kind of food and he will answer as if he’d been waiting to be asked; his list will be ranked and comprehensively annotated. Ask him about his favorite genre and he won’t even bother to look puzzled; he will laugh at you.

My wife is a mystery buff. When she runs through a favorite writer—Nero Wolfe, Anne Perry—she heads to Murder by the Book, a local Houston bookstore specializing in mysteries. She interrupts the clerks—a word that, for six hundred years, meant persons of book learning—mentions Perry’s or Wolfe’s name, and they take her by the elbow and lead her to the shelves to locate kindred souls. Try that in a Borders or Barnes & Noble. The college kid with facial piercings behind the counter will not even know his own store’s inventory.

As is family tradition, my wife and I took the nieces and nephews and the aunts and uncles to the bookstore after Thanksgiving for their “holiday” gifts. Overwhelmed by topical trash and the Black Friday crowds, we grabbed a stack of paperback Goldengroves off the Buy One Get the Second 50% Off table and fled for home, where we distributed them like cards and talked about safer topics—sports, children, war.

Books are becoming a private vice in America like pornography or online poker.


Steven said...

Dear Sir,

Ah! So it is to you that I owe thanks for the recommendation. Presently immersed in Goldengrove and finding it beautifully done. I've found one minor flaw, about which I may say more later (and it is exceedingly minor--only a problem to one obsessed with certain aspects of our language). I hope the ending bears out the promise of the beginning. (And it's good to know that it has just hit those bargain tables--that suggests that the remaindered hardcovers should be hitting the shelves shortly as well--or perhaps are already there. I'll have to seek them out.)

Sorry for the lengthy comment--but thank you for the suggestion. I am enjoying it as a fine respite to Adiga Arvind's The White Tiger



D. G. Myers said...


The latest issue of Commentary has a terrific article by Christine Rosen on the “literary mashups” Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. I’d never heard of “literary mashups,” but it’s not a bad term for Goldengrove. Or at least Prose’s is a better model for how to do it.

Sam said...

It's gotten so bad that I'm actually shocked when I find a real reader anywhere in my office environment. Who would believe a whole building filled with college grads would house so few readers? It's a sad old world.

Space Station Mir said...

Dr. Myers,

You paint a bleak picture! As a regular reader of your blog for several months now, I feel compelled to assure you that my favorite books and genres are well annotated and ready to be rattled off at the least provocation.

My go-to question is often "What have you been reading?" and while it's often books for class, graphic novels, or chick lit, I usually get an answer.

I'm 20 years old and an English major at university, and the art of reading is not dead!

panavia999 said...

In the 80's I worked in an accounting dept with about eight coworkers. The County's main library branch was a short distance away so I indulged in it's treasures. One day I headed for lunch break and grabbed my book with the telltale cellophane cover wrapping. One lady said, "Hey, is that a library book?" I enthused about how great it was to have a huge library so handy to work. She said, "Hey look everyone, Muriel has a library book!" They were impressed! I asked "Don't you people go to the library?" "OH I used to take the kids when they were in school but not anymore." I was young and naive in those days - I was dumbfounded. It wasn't what I was reading, but simply the fact that I had a library book.
(The book was the Earl of Chesterfield's letters.)

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

Books as vices! The idea seems less like hyperbole every day.

I'm rereading Max Jamison and in it, books seem always to be described as intoxicating. Even mere typing, only as a lesser surrogate of reading or writing, of course, is likened to a narcotic... And sex, an actual vice, performed in an "intellectual heat"!