It is one of the most uncomfortable unsettling experiences for me. That gap between books. I finish one and then, for some inexplicable reason, finding another one to land in is a problem. It’s like trying on articles of clothing and nothing seems to fit.
I am happy to report that this does not happen to me as much as it used to. But when it does, oh my, the stress. When I am without book it’s almost as if I am being asked to get through the day without air to breathe. There are times when I understand why finding that next book is a problem. You get drawn into one author’s world and then find transitioning to the next author somewhat tricky For example, a few years ago I read almost everything by Charles Dickens. Anyone who loves to read will experience a gift from heaven if they read Dickens, which means, for American readers anyway, slowing down and taking your time with each sentence and then, if you do, his dazzling prescience, comprehension and understanding of life from all angles emerges and you understand why he is, without question, one of the greatest writers that has ever walked the earth. But when I finished my time with Dickens, I went through a rather uncomfortable period of who to read next. Who on earth do you turn to after Dickens?!
One of my common reading patterns is to lock into writers who strikes my fancy and then read a lot of what they’ve written. Last year I gobbled up nearly everything John Dos Passos wrote. This year it was all the books written by Bernard Malamud and then books by a writer who is now one of my favorites and who seemed to understand life with the same kind of global prescience and comprehension as Dickens: J.G. Farrell. But, oh my, those periods of time between books. Nerve wracking. Like being adrift at sea without a compass.
For as long as I have memory I’ve loved books. Though when I was about eight or so, I found myself convinced that I was not, like my mother and father, a real reader. My father taught English literature at Columbia University and my mother had been one of his students after World War II. My father had served in the Army and my mother had been in London during the war. Her first husband was a pilot in the RAF. Needless to say, they loved to read.
And so at age eight I went to my father’s room. He was sitting at his desk marking papers. Behind him was a ceiling-to-floor bookshelf filled with books, to this day one of the most beautiful sights in the world as far as I’m concerned.
“Daddy, I don’t think I’m a reader like you and Mommy.”
He sat back in his chair and gave me a gentle smile. “What makes you say that?”
I looked at the wall full of books. “Because every time I start reading one I can’t finish it.”
“What makes you think you have to finish it?”
I was completely taken off guard. Of course you were supposed to finish the book. Wasn’t that some kind of rule? “Aren’t you supposed to finish’m?”
“No no. You’re thinking about school assignments. We’re talking about reading. Don’t you think the author has some responsibility to keep you interested?”
I had to admit, he made sense. “I guess so.”
“Okay then,” he looked at the books behind him and back at me. “Pick ten books that seem interesting to you. Forget page numbers. Read them until you don’t want to read them anymore. One day you’ll look up and realize you finished one.”
My father gave me the world of reading and the freedom to explore that world. Books have been my joy and refuge throughout my life. Through my days of homelessness (I would nick them off the paperback racks in drugstores) I’d always have one stuffed in my back pocket. Do I finish every book I start? Not at all. My book shelves are filled with books sprouting book marks. And while I still don’t like being without book, the good news is there is no shortage of books and, for those of us on fixed incomes, there are libraries.
By the way, I finished my first book a week or so after talking with my Dad. I still have it: “The Folded Leaf,” by William Maxwell.