This week I've been reading a collection of short fiction by an author whose work I'd managed to overlook for the last couple decades, despite recommendations. The first story starts like this*:
My heart — I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God. I passed two churches with cars parked in front. Then I stopped at the third because no one else had.
How many times can I read that paragraph before it starts to wear thin? I'm going on fifteen or twenty.
This being the first piece in a 400-page book, the story could be long or short, funny or tragic. The first paragraph isn't giving much away. What almost stopped the narrator's heart? Who picks a church by the number of cars parked outside — the less, the better? And why would someone apparently disinclined toward popular religion rush to a house of God in the first place? Why not a bar or a friend's place? Questions, I've got questions.
One thing about reading for employment is that you're often immersed in material that doesn't suit your mood**, and you can't simply put a book down when interest wanes. Never would I suggest that reading ranks among life's more taxing vocations, or that it's physically demanding (provided you can stay awake), or dangerous or demeaning or even dull (caffeine helps). It's not coal mining, this work, but a job is a job, meaning that weeks can go by, even a month, when I'd rather be doing something else — perhaps interacting with human beings (crazy!) instead of holing up with paper and ink. I've been at this for eight years now; you try maintaining a passion that long, for anything, without slipping into the occasional rut.
Most of what I read is very good, if not quite transcendent. It's just that sometimes I don't feel like reading.
But I can't wait to get back to this story collection. Which is noteworthy, and not unappreciated. If I take my job for granted once in a while, forgive me, but then along comes a writer like this one and there's nothing I'd rather do than dive back into the work.
Last week on the blog, Erin McKean kept us rhapsodized with insider tales of lexicography. C'mon, be honest: We are dorks. You, reading this — this is how you choose to spend your leisure time, cruising a bookseller lit blog? It's remarkable how much pleasure words can bring us. And better than words (sometimes), complete sentences and paragraphs, whole pages of nothing but!
Do not tell me today's opening paragraph wouldn't keep you reading.
Actually, go ahead, if you like. I'm not looking for companionship tonight anyway.
*I'm reminded of a favorite concert sound bite: Keith Richards on stage, taking a rare turn at the microphone, announcing, "This one goes like this!" before tearing into a signature riff on rhythm guitar.
**To clear up a common misperception about employment at Powells.com: We don't read at our desks. During the day, we answer email or attend meetings or work on the website (or plead with Georgie to tell us jokes). Reading comes later, at home.
Update: Find the author and title. (And look for an interview with the author, coming May 3rd.)
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State