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Original Essays

The Reading Life

by Sara Nelson
When, during the year I was writing So Many Books, So Little Time, I told people my book was about books, I suddenly couldn't hear myself for all the snoring. "Oh, that's interesting," they'd say as their eyes rolled back in their heads, even the ones I knew to be avid readers themselves. I think they thought I was writing 52 book reviews, my version of the canon, some take on Harold Bloom lite, or, in my case, very very lite.

I couldn't really blame them, of course, since when I started on this project at the beginning of 2002, I thought that was what I'd be writing. I'd originally sold the book idea as 52 books, 52 weeks, and while I knew (and the publisher knew, from the proposal) that there would be a lot of personalizing in the book, I really had no idea it would turn out to be as much a memoir as a reading guide. Having never written a book before — I'd never composed anything longer than magazine articles which were, at most, 2000 words — I didn't know how to go about it, but the one idea I had was that I would write it in diary form, in real time: that I'd read (or try to read) a book a week, and that I'd sit down every weekend and write something, anything, about what had happened that week. The one thing I knew I didn't want to do was read all the books and then try to write about them all at once at the end of the year.

The result, I think, is very memoir-ish and when I read it now, it feels like a good chronicle of the last year, complete with interactions with my son, Charley, a rip-roaring fight with my husband Leo, and a lot of conversations with my sister, Liza and my mother, June. There's also a lot about my late father in the book: I think that surprised me the most, since Charles was not, on the surface of things, the major influence in my reading life. It wasn't until I started writing, in fact, that I remembered that it was he who actually taught me to read, on the back stairs of the lake house we used to go to in the summer; I was as amazed as anyone that a book like Den of Thieves — a business book — would bring him alive to me so clearly.

Another thing that has surprised me is how the people in my life have reacted to it. I tried not to get my feelings hurt when my friend Jessie called me after reading the edited manuscript and said, "It's great — but I didn't realize it was going to be funny." I guess even she had fallen into the trap of thinking it was going to be a "serious" book about books, and that it was going to be educational, like homework. Don't get me wrong: I do think you can learn some stuff by reading So Many Books, So Little Time — and you can certainly get some ideas of what to put in your must-read pile — but I'll be happier if people come away with a sense, or a recognition, about how basic reading can be to a life, and how you don't always have to read what the big bad they out there tell you to read. People like me can no more stop reading than they can stop eating or breathing. Nor do we want to. And I bet there are more than a few readers out there who have wrestled with some of the facts of the reading life: like, that you don't always revere the best-reviewed books, that you can run into trouble when a friend you love recommends a book you end up hating, and — maybe most important — that you really can put down a book that isn't calling to you. We're all out of school now: there is no quiz in the morning. The Reading Police won't show up tomorrow to arrest you for giving up on something.

Some people have asked me how my husband took to my revealing aspects of our personal life — like that fight I mentioned, and like the fact that I ruminate for a whole chapter (while reading Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina) about the pros and cons of adultery. The answer is: he has been great about it, but if you've read the book, you won't be surprised to hear that he, a non-reader, didn't get through the whole thing until a few weeks ago. Some other people have been less sanguine about some of my revelations; in the interest of not antagonizing them further, I won't tell you who said what, only that publishing So Many Books, So Little Time has been an education for me about the craft of memoir. You think you're saying something nice about somebody, but they read one little word or phrase and think you're dissing them. What's that old saw: "No good deed goes unpunished?" It's been like that.

Mostly, I hope, that the book will inspire strong feelings: about the books, about my opinions, about the reading life. I've had some people call me up and scold me for not finishing White Teeth, to name just one, and what usually happens is we end up having a heated discussion about Zadie Smith. I love that. That's the kind of conversation I have in my daily life as a writer, editor, teacher and mother (God knows...) and I welcome it.

As I say in the book, the American humorist Oscar Levant once said, "I've given up reading books...I find it takes my mind off myself." Poor Oscar. He missed the point. We are what we read.

Aren't we? spacer

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