Ex Libris: Making Things Up
By Steve Donoghue
The professional side of my reading ledger is always both pleasingly full and pleasingly regular, although no matter how many times I used it, that “professional” always feels a little odd as a description. After all, the new releases I read every month might be my profession, but they’re also my passion, which makes them feel entirely personal instead of professional. They don’t represent anything grudging – I love their variety and unpredictability, even if a large percentage of them are junk.
But even though all of those books in their infinite variety keep arriving on the front porch needing to be sorted and sampled and read and possibly reviewed, I still set aside time every day for non-professional reading, the kind of undirected, sometimes capricious drifting and browsing – almost mood-driven – that governs most of the reading other people do.
Almost every ‘professional’ book comes with some kind of time-clock connected to it. It’s got a publication date, of course, but if it’s on any docket for reviewing, it’s also got a filing date when the review is due, and therefore also an elastic sequence of composition dates – when to finish reading, when to organize notes, when to start writing, when to finish writing with enough time to give it a read-over before filing it, etc. I’ve been putting that kind of utilitarian framework on my new arrivals for so long that it almost happens automatically, and although it doesn’t diminish the urgency of my reactions to those books (I’ve lost count of how many I’ve loved and also reviewed), it does create a different general atmosphere.
But a book pulled off my shelves (or up from the depths of my e-reader) almost at random? Where a fugitive mention in some recent magazine article or conversation sends me back to something I haven’t read in years or even decades? That’s an entirely different atmosphere. And although I don’t know exactly why, it always creates a very different reading experience.
I’ve had a few very good such experiences recently, books picked through odd cross-currents of serendipity. A new study of African elephant conservation efforts prompted me to take up Barbara Gowdy’s “The White Bone,” her novel told from the point of view of a young elephant named Mud, who ambles along with the rest of his herd through the normal routines of their days – only those routines have been disrupted by a devastating drought and ravaged by ivory poachers. Like most of his elders, Mud struggles to hold on to hope in the form of his herd’s old prophecy, and the book provoked a chorus of critical praise when it first appeared. I largely agreed with that praise, even though I usually have very little patience with the ways non-human animals tend to be anthropomorphized in fiction. And that appreciation actually increased during this re-read I did recently; when I first read the book years ago, I’d missed some of the subtleties Gowdy works into her story.
I was fully prepared for the subtleties in Rabih Alameddine’s slim but unexpectedly powerful novel “An Unnecessary Woman” – I absolutely loved the book when it first appeared, so this return (prompted by an essay I read by Jhumpa Lahiri on the intricacies of translating literature) was for pure enjoyment. This is the story of Aaliya, an older woman living alone in Beirut, who lives a quiet life that’s enlivened by her peculiar intellectual hobby: she likes to translate foreign works into Arabic. She works on one book at a time, works methodically at her own pace, and Alameddine’s story follows her through her everyday life as she works on these translations and thinks about books and language in general. Aaliya is the ironic title’s unnecessary woman, but there’s a real magic that Alameddine works in making her real to the reader. As much as I love this book, I’d forgotten this quiet magic that it works, so low-key that you don’t fully realize how it’s snared you until what amounts to the book’s climactic action, when the whole world seems to stop as a result of an accident so trivial you’d ignore it in any other book. Re-reading the book just made me want to re-read it again, very soon.
That same urge – the urge to revisit the same book over and over, just for the pleasure and comfort of it – was of course my foremost reason for another re-read I did recently: “Joy in the Morning” by P. G. Wodehouse, a light-as-air comic novel starring hapless drone-about-town Bertie Wooster and his all-knowing all-capable valet Jeeves. It’s no insult to comment that all the Jeeves and Wooster novels are very similar; this one sees our heroes visiting the country village of Steeple Bumpleigh, home of Bertie’s formidable Aunt Agatha, who lurks in the background of the book’s antics for the whole adventure. I read Jeeves and Wooster novels with a dreamy smile on my face the entire time, and that was very much true during this recent re-read. Wodehouse’s loopy, springy prose is an unassuming marvel, always smarter than it looks – in addition to being pleased, I’m always grateful that Wodehouse wrote so many of these things in his long life at the typewriter.
So I came off this string of re-reads very pleased with the experience, and it was only an ill-advised visit to Twitter that reminded me of something all three of those novels have in common. A splashy fascist on the site noticed that “at least two award-nominated books this year are about v [that’s “very”] poor protagonists but are written by authors who were never poor.” The post went on: “Appropriating poverty for accolades is disgusting & I don’t know why we don’t talk about this more.”
When I first read that tweet, I thought: you’d burn those books, wouldn’t you? But after this recent string of wonderful re-reads, I had another thought: P. G. Wodehouse wasn’t a brainless playboy. Rabih Alameddine is not a 70-year-old woman in Beirut. And the last time I checked, Babara Gowdy was not an elephant.
The moral of the story? You guessed it: spend less time on Twitter!