There are currently 24 books sitting atop my bedside table. One on baseball, a chronicle of a Great Lakes storm in 1913, short story collections I’ve been told I must read (Phil Klay’s Redeployment and The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol), a meditation on the color blue. There’s a mess of novels in various states of progress–or stagnation. The Field Guide to Fields from National Geographic is on the stack, too, and oddly thrilling in its very straightforward explanations of bramble and sugarcane coupled with bright, inviting art. I give this number not as a bookish type of braggadocio, but by way of offering some concrete example of a reading life that has overcome its presumed owner. The animals have, quite obviously, taken over this zoo.
Let me take a step back. Until somewhat recently I was a professional reader. Or, at least, I was a bookseller, and part of that duty included giving suggestions to lots of kinds of readers. In any given hour, I might have dealt with a woman buying a present for her thirteen-year-old niece she calls “smart, like, very bright. But her parents are pretty conservative, so let’s stay away from the vampires and any bad language.” Next through the door, I’d get a regular whose taste in reading material has no discernible pattern – something that makes helping him both difficult and pleasurable in equal measure. He’s the sort who shoots down eight or nine possibilities before we find the exact right book. (By “we” I mean that he found it. That’s perfectly fine.) Finally, I’d have a book club come in, looking for suggestions for the upcoming year. It’s important to come up with a mix of things, titles they’ve likely heard about as well as things they’d not otherwise run across. And again, our success rate with those suggestions will be pretty low. That is almost always the case.
So, given all that, for the past 15 years I’ve needed at my professional disposal an at least competent understanding of: picture books, YA/teen lit, obscure translations, the latest shocking memoir on the New York Times’ list and enough other of-the-moment bookish trivia to come up with a fair response to anything else that a customer might hit me up about. Or, you know, they might ask me for “that book with the orange cover that was sitting right here two weeks ago.”
At the end of January I decided I was done with bookselling for now. Once a civilian reader again, I very quickly realized that in the past few years I had become a grazer of books, reading mostly in snippets and bits. I read lots of reviews, both in print and online. I started (and stopped) a lot of books. I was always armed with a long list of “Things I Should Definitely Read Next” filled with suggestions from both customers and publishers’ sales representatives. I don’t mean to overstate the job-related stress — no one’s long-term health or wellness is on the line in bookselling — but still. The gig comes with some pressure.
I’d developed this coping strategy over the last few years, where I attempted to read from three different categories at one time: I would pick up an ‘older’ book (generally fiction, in the neighborhood of the 1920s to1950s), at the same time that I was reading from one newish title (current frontlist to three years back) and one advance reading copy of some forthcoming book. The third type, especially, was an ever-shifting category, heavily influenced by sheer caprice (and pleas from a favorite sales rep to finish something and get back to them with a response). I also joined a book-club a couple years ago, a very cool group of men whose tastes diverge from mine in ways that are challenging and exciting. But I have to admit, in the context of everything else, even that modest reading commitment represented a loss of personal choice that I mildly resented.
Now, here I am, three months removed from all that. The newfound liberation of my reading life has now come to resemble the kind of unstructured anarchy any reasonable government (or parent) fears. It turns out, being able to choose whatever I want, whenever I want, from the vast world of literature is as paralyzing as it is freeing. There is something to be said for a restaurant with a very short menu. I know well from experience that I can only really handle three or four books at once — beyond that, characters and plot start to jumble in my mind; I lose track of dates and narrative sequence, not to mention names. While I admire a certain aesthetic that involves books on furniture or even becoming furniture I also recognize this: two ragged piles of 24 books on a nightstand isn’t conducive to good reading. Trying to do so much at once is a fine way to get nothing done.
I know that sounds like a bad proverb or something out of fortune cookie, but it’s nonetheless true of my reading life.
So. With all those piles, am I actually reading anything? Somewhat recently I finished John McPhee’s The Survival of the Bark Canoe, which seems like it should be an elegy, but it’s not. I crashed through Walter Kirn’s latest book, about his bizarre relationship with a German national who claimed to be a Rockefeller. Blood Will Out is not the second coming of In Cold Blood, but it is a revealing glimpse into the sort of world a person can create when they act with certainty and a willingness to prey on the good faith of other people. Also read recently: Celeste Ng and Scott Cheshire both have debut novels out, and both escape the first-book trap of throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix, so that they satisfy on nearly all levels.
Mostly, though, I’ve savored the time lately spent with Pinckney Benedict’s dogs of god. Published in 1995, I have no idea where I bought this book. (Magers and Quinn? Sixth Chamber? Powell’s? Maybe a yard sale? All fair guesses.) And how had I even heard of this title? I doubt it was the cover that convinced me to pick it up. It certainly wasn’t the Joyce Carol Oates blurb calling Benedict “…one of the most distinctive voices of his generation.” Actually, this is a book that would fit nicely with a lot of the rough and tumble stuff being published to much praise right now. Think George Singleton, Frank Bill and Donald Ray Pollock. Or, if those names are a bit obscure you could look to most anything hailing from the Ozarks or Appalachia or West Virginia: authors like Chris Offutt and Daniel Woodrell. It seems inevitable to compare such a novel as Benedict’s with those of the high priest of all things dark, menacing, gothic or in any fashion ‘manly’ – Mr. Cormac McCarthy.
I’m about 50 pages from finishing Benedict’s book as I write this, and in most ways it doesn’t much matter to me how it ends. I’ve enjoyed the time spent in its pages plenty already. But more than that, you have to admire a book sufficiently compelling to push past all the flotsam to get even a scattershot reader like me to pay attention.
Hans Weyandt has worked at four independent bookstores In St. Paul/Minneapolis over the past 15 years. He is the former co-owner of Micawber’s Books and the editor of Read This! published by Coffee House Press. He currently works at Sea Salt Eatery, Moon Palace Books and Big Bell Ice Cream.