Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A heartbreaking post of staggering uniqueness

I got a little frustrated last night. I was reading a list of upcoming “hot” fall books on the Daily Beast site. It’s the usual stuff mostly: Dan Brown, Mitch Albom, and so on. I glance at the author’s name, and it says, “Sara Nelson, author of the bestselling So Many Books, So Little Time." Really? My ears perk up (or maybe my eyes, as I was reading). A check on Amazon reveals the book chronicles her effort to read a book per week for one year. Huh.

Not only that, but Anna Quindlen, whose books I’ve never read but evidently lots of other people have, has tackled the subject as well, in How Reading Changed My Life. You don’t say.

I knew when I started this project that it wasn’t an original idea; how could it be? I came up with it when I ran across a discussion group on goodreads full of people doing the exact same thing. Not only that, I ran across a couple of blogs (links at left <<) whose authors are doing the exact same thing.

I feel ordinary again.

Now it occurs to me, maybe I should start over. I could read something else, like the encyclopedia, but that’s already been covered quite engagingly by A.J. Jacobs in The Know It All. Actually, I didn’t even finish that, although I liked his other book, about the bible. Either way, scratch that.

Maybe I could read another list of books. Christopher Beha got pretty good reviews for doing just that in The Whole Five Feet, in which he spends a year reading the Harvard Classics.

I think if I keep looking, I will find myself completely discouraged and just give up. Goodbye, cruel blogosphere!

Maybe I could choose another list of books. My beloved Strand bookstore has a list called The Strand 80. This list is largely composed of classics and Important Books that already line my shelves; they fall into two categories: books I’ve never read, or books that I’ve read repeatedly (Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald). Many were read for school, inevitably. I’ve already seen the movie for some (Lord of the Rings); but for those I have read nor bothered with the movie, is there a point to forcing myself? Maybe there is but I’ve never been a huge believer in suffering for art, which is a conversation for another day.

I think this is where I get into trouble with reading. I buy things (or when I’m feeling budget-conscious or run out of shelf space, check out of the library) that everyone likes, or that I “should” read for some reason, but I’m not really interested so I don’t read them. Then the books sit there, staring at me from the shelves, making me feel guilty and worse, inadequate. They’re doing it right now.

I take my daughter and my dog for a walk (only the latter was on a leash) and on our usual route, we pass what is easily the most, well, festive house in the neighborhood. It’s painted like a gingerbread house: purple with colorful trim. But it’s, oh, so much more than that.

This house has a huge yard, and it’s filled not with grass, but with trees and assorted lawn sculptures, and it’s surrounded by a white picket fence. And every last thing on the property is covered with birdhouses. Birdhouses on the fenceposts. Birdhouses hanging from the trees. Birdhouses mounted on posts, scattered about the yard. It’s Hitchcock’s worst nightmare.

And these are not just any birdhouses, mind you: Every last one of them is painted colorfully, fancifully, like a miniature gingerbread house. An explosion of color. The owners never decorate for Halloween; they don’t have to – even as an adult, I’ve long been convinced that the house must be inhabited by the sort of person who keeps a kid-sized oven inside.

But here’s the thing: You remember that house. I get lost looking for other people’s houses, and if you ask me what color most of my friends’ houses are, I probably couldn’t tell you. Ummmm, beige? No, wait, brown. I don’t know. This house, though – I know exactly where it is. We look forward to passing by and debating whether or not they ever put birdseed in any of those houses.

For a long time I thought: those people are crazy (the house is rather small, so I assume they’re not rich enough to be “eccentric”). To me all those birdhouses were just a kind of giant EFF YOU to the neighborhood. But today it hits me: No, they just don’t care. It’s their house, their way. Isn’t that how it should be? Many people have houses, but only one family has THAT house. It’s not about the house, it’s about the personality.

I spend some more time with the Strand 80, and now I feel a bit differently about it. First of all, I realize I’ve easily read half of these books.

Yea! I’m well read! Gimme a Woo-Hoo!

Then I stumble across book #20, Ulysses. The book that I read four chapters of and then delivered a very persuasive oral presentation on, in college. One thing I remember about Ulysses is that it isn’t about plot: the story is about one ordinary man’s day. That’s it. All 800 or so pages.

But nobody else could have written it. Every chapter is different, an entirely different style to suit the subject of the chapter. For example, the chapter when he visits the news room is written like a newspaper article. It’s a work of genius. The absolute simplest thing – a man’s day – elevated to a work of art.

A work of art I’ve not ever finished reading.

Much like our birdhouse-loving neighbors’ house, I tend to recoil from things that are different. That’s not so unusual, I imagine. But that’s the stuff we remember, isn’t it? Those are the people that stick with us, and the books, and the places.

For the moment, I’m on page 140 of A Supremely Bad Idea, and plan to keep going. Hope you stay with me.


  1. Jessica, I think you need a pick me up. 80 calorie fudge pops work for me...:) You know I think you shouldn't really worry about any of this. Just go with the flow. If you like something other people like, yeah, if you don't - just forget about it. There are books that people love, I hate - there is art that people say is awe inspiring and I just see blobs of color. My suggestion is just try to fit into your skin. If you try and mold yourself into something else, you'll never feel comfortable. And if you finally find that fit - you can't help being unique. You may not come up with the latest greatest idea ever...or have that house that everyone remembers, but at least at the end you can feel satisfied.

  2. I love you Jessica ~ keep those books coming. Someday I'll read again (getting closer and closer...)

  3. Woo hoo! (there you go)

    I say: don't let anyone/thing get you discouraged, don't read something because you're "supposed" to, read for the pure enjoyment. If you're not getting something out of this other than the bragging rights of having read alot, what's the point? You need to read and ENJOY a lot, and shove it in the faces of anyone who disagrees.
    Read on, friend.

  4. Keep reading! After all, surely fifty books in a year becoming a plotline of other books simply means that it's a great thing to do? Maybe you need to work out what you love about books again.

    Aside from that, ParaJunkee's pudding refuge doesn't sound like a bad idea.


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