Total: 42. (I might knock out a couple more in the last couple weeks, but I’m calling it as of 12/11.)
You can see them all here. I’m kind of cheating to include ones like Catwings, which are like thirty seconds long, but on the other hand, I’ve slogged through some real behemoths. (Shouldn’t Brothers Karamazov count as more than one book?!)
Audiobooks. Audiobooks while running, audiobooks while cleaning, audiobooks getting ready in the morning. So grateful for those opportunities.
MG with Pippin: In the last few months Pippin’s powers of attention to long stories have really taken off, and he loves to have me read aloud to him as he zooms a truck along beside me on the couch. It’s (unsurprisingly) one of my favorite things to do with him. We start many more than we finish, but when he hits on a book he loves — Henry Huggins, Little House on the Prairie — he begs for the next chapter unceasingly.
The Lake House(Kate Morton) — almost as good as The Secret Keeper, my favorite of hers. Her books are always atmospheric and kind of moody and beautiful, and the best have plots that broadside me, but have a rightness. (I want to say “lushly romantic”…but that descriptor kind of embarrasses me.)
Helena(Evelyn Waugh) — maybe my third or fourth Waugh, and the first I’ve liked. The plotting and language are kind of disconcerting, but at the kernel is this idea: that one decision can define you, that one fiat can set you down in legend.
The Precious One(Marisa de los Santos) — I recommended this to a friend who said reading it was like listening to me talk, that it was just so essentially me. All I can say is I loved it: funny and quirky with vivid characters and places you want to visit yourself and lots of sweet moments.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett:I remember trying to read this a couple of times before I could get through it, totally in love with the movie (was Dickon my first crush?), but totally stymied by the Yorkshire accents. I think it was the first book to touch (or inspire?) my love of deep history, of stories in which layer upon layer of human generation has touched a place, leaving it shadowy with memory and mystery. It is also probably most directly responsible for the Anglophile tendencies that led me to Oxford for study abroad in 2007.
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery:Later this book was other things to me — the foundation for a dream-come-true trip to Prince Edward Island when I was 9 or 10, the subject of my undergrad honors thesis — but first Anne Shirley was an inspiration to me for how one should live. She balances a dreamy romantic spirit with a sense of duty to the people around her. (Also, every bouquet I’ve ever picked has been inspired at least a little by Anne.)
Alas, Babylonby Pat Frank: I’m not really sure why I’ve always loved post apocalyptic stories, but I am sure that this was the first I read, plucked from a shelf of my parents’ books sometime in grade school. I think stories of worldwide calamity satisfy some conviction in my anxious heart of the brokenness of our world, and the best ones, like this one, show us a way to rebuild it.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling: I was born in 1985, at just the perfect time for Harry P. — right at the generational hinge of people young enough to read the books just as they were coming out, so that the first debuted when I was about Harry’s age, and I awaited the last one as an old engaged lady. The books in themselves are a world to inhabit, but what was probably most important to me about them was how they made reading a communal thing. Harry Potter was and remains a secret language for discovering kindred spirits.
What Mothers Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothingby Naomi Stadlen: Ok, I’m going to tell you a librarian secret now: we scam from the holds shelf. I saw this one come through when Pippin was a baby and I was working circ, and I immediately added it to my holds, because I was a mother who felt like she was doing nothing. It was unbelievably affirming and fascinating and you should really read it, too, if you’ve ever felt like motherhood was killing you.
I am not sure about this list. It’s like nothing notable happened to me in college, despite being an English major and Great Books student. Hmm. But it’s hard to select just one formative thing (King Lear! Pascal’s Pensees! Digging deep into Austen! You know, finally reading the Bible!), so I will offer a jumble of other stuff, college and not, below.
The other day when everyone was sick we watched Shrek and I realized Pippin was getting zero of the fairy tale references, except maybe the Gingerbread Man, because it turns out we haven’t read him any fairy tales.
And you know, it turns out reading fairy tales to your kid is kind of scary business. For the parent, I mean. Pippin doesn’t bat a lash at Little Red Riding Hood getting gobbled or Hansel and Gretel’s parents abandoning their own children, and he enjoys knight/dragon battles with a relish I frankly find a little unseemly.
The truth is, I don’t think he’s encountered a lot of darkness in his own life yet, beyond his own not inconsiderable fears and anxieties. Two years ago at Holy Week we started to talk about the crucifixion, but when NPR talks about the latest shooting, we change stations, and we skip the Mr Rogers episodes about divorce, because it hasn’t come up in Pippin’s life yet.
Reading him this sad and scary stuff hurts me a little, as if I’m destroying his innocence, but his excitement and solemn focus suggest that these stories are telling him something he needs to know, and perhaps has long suspected. I’m reminded of that bit from G.K. Chesterton:
“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
So I’m letting him know now there are dragons in our world, and someday sooner than I’d like we will give them names: playground bullies and neglectful parents and police brutality and all the other ugly things in our broken world. But I hope by reading him these old stories, I will help him learn to find the heroes and to maybe, someday, become one himself.
(What are your kids’ favorite fairy tale versions?)
But at the same time, there are ways in which Christianity really is a time machine: As a Catholic, as a Christian, you can step into those worlds, find your footing, and realize that you are not somewhere altogether alien; that the past is another country but also somehow yours; you can in some sense think with the letter-writers of the New Testament and the Church Father scribbling in late antiquity and the medieval monk in the north of England and the Florentine poet and the philosopher-nun dealing with hapless popes and the mystic in Spain and the philosopher-martyr in Henry VIII’s court and thence back around to the saints and novelists and polemicists of the modern world.
My eyes meet Kristin Lavransdattar‘s over the communion rail; Alyosha Karamazov and I can discuss the overlap between western Roman Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy in the nineteenth century.
I feel, sometimes, though, like I’m caught between the librarian camp and the bookish mama camp. My librarian training would say that all books are valuable and that variety is most important, never looking down on a Spiderman novelization; the bookish mamas would say only quality will pass muster.
They give me a fictional framework upon which to contextualize knowledge I gain later from loftier sources — for instance, I’m reading the so-so Crazy Rich Asiansat the moment, maybe the first book I’ve ever read that takes place in Singapore, and it will form the conceptual framework I use next time I hear a NPR piece on Singapore. It’s like TV. There isn’t really anything you can watch that is particularly virtuous and educational, compared to, say a book or a lecture. But there’s something about the vividness of the nature documentary, or the setting of 1920s Yorkshire in Downton Abbey, entertainment you’ve chosen for yourself, that cements those facts more strongly in your head better than the driest, most informative book. I think the same goes for the fun fluff your kids choose to read. It’s not a meal in itself, but it’s certainly a start.
As a librarian, I was a staunch supporter of letting a kid add a Star Wars novella or two to his stack of books, and I still wince when a well-meaning parent outlaws any fluff from their little one’s reading. My varied, omnivorous reading has made me smarter, and wiser, and more compassionate, stretching me in all kinds of ways.
What’s more, divorced from community and faith and family, even great capital-Literature can be no stand-alone salvation. The summer I turned 25, my memories of my Great Books education became irrevocably tarnished, when a classmate in some of my early courses was charged with murder. The voices of goodness, truth and beauty that had spoken to me in that sunlit classroom haunted by errant wasps had fallen upon deaf ears, or perhaps been drowned out by subsequent influences or deep illness. The books I’d read and argued for gathered at that round table hadn’t necessarily meant the same to all of us.
Maybe good books matter, but good books aren’t the only ones that matter, and books aren’t all that matter. The simple act of reading cannot make us happier, or better, or holier, but filtered through experience and reflection, through the guide of a tradition and a community, reading can assemble behind us a rank of fictional counterparts, fighting down through the ages the same battles we now face.
I picked up The Lola Quartet in a little bookstore’s closing sale in Montgomery, Alabama. I ached for the little business, blinking out of existence just as my brother-in-law and his wife moved within walking distance, but I couldn’t help but pick up a few half-priced impulse purchases. I loved Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Elevenand hoped I’d love this novel, one of her earlier books, just as much.
I bought The Lola Quartet in Montgomery, but read it in a blankly comfortable Knoxville hotel room as the kids slept, and finished it on the monotonous interstate of Tennessee and Virginia.
The book is literary noir but between the whodunit details breathe a rich setting and striking questions about identity, community, and loneliness. Mandel’s South Florida reminds me of nothing so much as the world of The Orchid Thief, lush and quietly malevolent.
These days we are in the middle of buying our first ever house, and I grew uneasy as the protagonist Gavin takes a job with his sister, who sells foreclosed homes in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse. Gavin, long a New York apartment dweller, considers houses “[t]hese enormous anchors that people tied to their lives,” but his radical alienation is hardly the solution.
Mandel returns again and again to the sameness of everywhere — “Only the names of the towns varied, and the towns were like envelopes with all the contents the same.” Here is the stage where evil lurks behind closed doors, where abuse, neglect and addiction run rampant. It’s a hypnotically awful world, and it is, of course, our own, where every stop on the interstate offers the same fast food chains, where every suburban house is its own hermetically sealed mystery.
Gavin, like Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, seems more aware of this hollowness than those around him, and embarks on a quest that, for a time, brings meaning to his crumbling life. The people he encounters, in their late 20s and early 30s like me, are all frantically or else numbly lonely. They come from estranged or indifferent families and, despite their best efforts, are well on the way to repeating the pattern. Mandel doesn’t offer an anecdote, or much hope for this old high school quartet and its hangers-on, but her dark conclusion, perhaps, suggests what we must work against:
“On either side of the highway the suburbs continued uninterrupted, a continuous centreless glimmering of lights, shadows of palm trees on parking lots, malls shining like beacons and he was nowhere, this could be any suburb on the edge of any city but it seemed to him that none of the cities had edges anymore, just a long slow reach across landscapes.”
In our lives and in our new house, we must work against this insidious encroachment. We must respect the uniqueness of the landscape in which we find ourselves and support the businesses and culture that make it unique. We must resist the empty beacons of mindless consumption, never letting our house or our habits become a financial anchor around our necks. Most importantly, we must open our home to the wholesome air and light, and welcome in those who find themselves on the anonymous fringes.
It’s an ongoing thing for me. It helps that I was raised in a family that values housework, in which both parents adopted and enjoyed certain tasks. (Except ironing, which nobody claimed.) It helps that I’m an introvert who also enjoys structuring her own time. But beyond this foundation, I’ve had a lot to learn — I was a pretty useless kid, and until I was about 25, I moved often enough that I never had to clean baseboards or ovens. (Though I really probably should have.)
Still, here are some of my professional (homemaker) interests at the moment:
Roasting vegetables: For the first five years of our marriage, there were only two varieties of vegetables J and I prepared at home: green salad and jarred pasta sauce. We aren’t a lot better now, but I’m trying, honest. Lately, I’ve been moseying over to our local Sharp Shopper (which really deserves its own post on its manifold attractions), where I snag a bunch of vegetables that look attractive (HA, says 15-year-old Katherine), and then one day when the babes are sleeping or playing independently, I prep and roast them all on one pan, then divide them up and use them in stuff. I get to feel smug about serving crispity roast brussel sprouts, and roast broccoli in my pasta sauce and mushrooms and asparagus in my quiche. It reminds me of the line in Sisterland — “I heard myself say to Ben, ‘I’m going to compost the rest of the bok choy,’ and pretty much everything I was smug about then was encapsulated in that single sentence.“
Hampers for the kids: I asked my parents to get Pippin a truck hamper for Christmas, and they did, even though now they think I’m even lamer than the year I asked for a vacuum for my birthday. (It’s a really great vacuum.) So now we have a hamper for Pippin’s room and I appropriated a toy bin for Scout’s room to use as a hamper there, and WHO KNEW, Pippin actually loves to put dirty clothes in the hamper. So each weekday morning the three of us straighten up the kids’ rooms. It takes about ten minutes and then their rooms don’t look like crap. Please note: our room still looks like crap, because ten minutes won’t begin to put a dent in it.
Evening audiobooks: I’ve mentioned them before, but seriously, one of my favorite parts of the day is now cleaning up after dinner. J takes the kids downstairs to “bond” with them (wrestle and watch David Attenborough documentaries, as far as I can tell), and until Scout starts up her dinosaur chorus of shrieks summoning her personal milk truck, I wash dishes and straighten up and fold and put away laundry. And all the while I listen to Librivox recordings of classics, or, more recently, digital audiobooks from the library. Free hands, clear head, can’t lose, or something like that.
Slow cooker batch prep: On the days when I’m not using the slow cooker to make the meal itself, I try to put it to work for something else. Great things I’ve found to make in there: caramelized onions; roasted garlic; and even my arch nemesis, dried beans. Having these pre-prepared ingredients makes it easier to make meals special, and if I never have to sauté another onion at dinnertime as the baby bounces frantically in her exersaucer and the toddler hurtles trucks under my feet, it will be too soon.