"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Books to the power of wonderful

I suppose I could have written this post a few weeks ago, but I was busy and I forgot, and then I was reading what one of my good friends wrote about her experience reading Eat, Pray, Love after moving to a new state, and that made me want to catch up with my life and write down some thoughts about books and the people who write them and the people who read them.

When I first moved to England, knowing no one, starting courses at a new university in a new country, feeling generally both excited and terrified, there were a few days of odd limbo. Classes hadn't started yet, although I had gotten all settled into my new house and was attending various orientation events and trying to meet a lot of new people at once. But when I needed a break from introducing myself and playing the names and faces game, I was pretty lonely, so I bought a book.

It happened to be Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan's latest novel, and it happened to be wonderful and a romantic spy story that was equally indulgent and inspiring, a good story packaged as good literature (that rare combination that McEwan creates so brilliantly). But what's funny is that this scenario had all happened to me before, two years ago, when I arrived for my semester abroad in France. Equally, if not more, alienated and confused and excited-but-terrified, I looked for refuge in the small collection of books sitting in the common room of where I was living. I picked up the only book in English I saw: The Innocent by Ian McEwan.

To make this parallel even more bizarre, The Innocent is also a spy story, less romantic and more gruesome. I remember lying in bed late at night reading to the end, utterly caught up in the story and the suspense, and being so grateful for the little respite it offered me from the challenge of learning a new city/country/world.

Both books were particularly suited to my need because both are about young people entering new and unfamiliar worlds as they try to define themselves and their lives - in The Innocent, Leonard Marnham arrives in Cold War Berlin from England and gets embroiled in love and some very challenging ethics questions; in Sweet Tooth, Serena Frome graduates from Cambridge only to find herself recruited by MI5 and whisked into a world of secret money, assumed identities, and very high stakes love affairs. OK, so I was just going to school in other countries, but still, it was nice to read about their adventures as a break from my own.

So here I was, smiling to myself over the odd coincidence and the very great pleasure which a pair of fine novels in the face of difficulty can bestow. And then Ian McEwan turned up at my university to give an interview and sign books, and I got the chance to tell him how much his books meant to me and why. This was incredibly important for me, and I'm so lucky to have had that chance. It made me realize how little we get to express our thanks to people who inspire us in a manner more personal than a standing ovation or a high number of sales of a book. And I got to stand face to face with one of my favorite authors and thank him for his work, got to express my feelings (if briefly and very nervously) about a book to the person who wrote it.

So yeah, it's not often the people who read books and who write them get to meet, but it's all the more wonderful maybe for being rare and special. I saw another example of this when I went to the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer and crowded into tents with other book-lovers to hear authors talk about their work and answer audience questions and the body heat generated by a bunch of people squeezed into that special space seemed to be charged with a massive energy of excitement and thrilled-to-be-here-ment that was infectious. Reading a book may be a pretty solitary, quiet activity most of the time, but it can generate big emotions, and sometimes it's just awesome to share that bigness out loud.

P.S. Speaking of books and talking about them with others, I know I said I would do a lot of reviews of/posts about the books I've been reading for my course, and I haven't much at all. But I'm going to try to do more of that because I love writing about books and I want to write down some of my thoughts about the ones I've liked best or learned the most from this semester before I settle into new books and the old ones fly out of my head. So stay tuned.

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