Category Archives: Kerry Clare

Encounters with Books: In Conclusion


For over a year and a half, I’ve been tracking various encounters with books here at the Descant blog. I’ve been writing about the curious intersections between reading and ordinary life, our relationships towards books as objects, and the impact books have upon us far beyond the reading experience. I’ve written about books in the bath, books in transit, bibliokleptomania, books as fashion, unfinished, on docks with a beer in the summertime, and accidentally bookish vacations. The point of all of this being that books happen to us, whether we stumble upon them on the sidewalk or they’re delivered in the post. Whether we choose them carefully (so we think), or whether they choose us. Books in remainders bins, free books boxed on the sidewalk, our old books with adolescent marginalia, those never returned to the library (mistakenly, or otherwise). All the best books we ever encounter come with stories beyond the text.

On Sunday, I encountered Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar crawling out of a pylon at the corner of Bloor Street and Avenue Road. How curious and even curiouser. And quite fitting, really– that this was a bookish encounter with children’s literature, and not even with an actually book. Which might be the way that most of my bookish encounters go during the next while, when I’ve got a brand new baby to get to know, and get to grow.

I imagine that the baby will bring me encounters with books entirely unlike those I’ve experienced before. Books with pictures, for example, or made of cloth, or books that are made to be drowned in the bath and float back up to the surface. Our baby even has books without words, and mirrors instead for Baby to gaze at itself (which is probably a metaphor for some awful adult literature, though I’m not entirely sure just what specifically). The baby will get to know books as objects before becoming aware of any other use value for them– books, like the whole world, are to be seen, touched, tasted, smelled, and perhaps even ripped to pieces. And yes, books are also to be heard, as eventually Baby might become interested in being read a story.

There are many wonderful ways to encounter children’s books here in Toronto.
I look forward to story time at our local library, and small baby as excuse to peruse to the children’s literature shelves. We live within walking distance of the Lillian H. Smith library and the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books. Just a trip on the streetcar will take us to The Children’s Book Bank, which is a marvelous place where books are precious and many, and can be had for free. (Also a very good place to take your lovingly-used books when the shelves become too crowded). Our closest playground is the Margaret Fairley Parkette (which is pretty literary, as parkettes go). We’ve got great bookshops on all sides of us, whose children’s sections are well worth exploring. And when Baby gets a little bit bigger, we’ll take in TINARS for Tots.

So the bookish encounters will continue, just perhaps at a more toddling pace.

Encounters With Books: With an End Date


Is there such thing as a terminal diagnosis leaving time enough to read 1001 whole books? Life itself would be the only diagnosis that I can think of, and even though I have come down with that, I still don’t feel a great deal of urgency. 1001 books is a long long time, but still, I am intrigued by the idea of reading with an end date. It’s sort of desert islandy, I realize, but imagine a finite amount of time left for reading. What books do you think you would pick?

This question has become important to me of late, as I am currently reading towards my own end date. And no, I’m not dying or losing my sight (and thank goodness for that), but my life is about to be thrown into upheaval, and all I know for sure is that come the end of May, things will never be the same again.

Because come the end of May, I will have had a baby, and not for a long time will I again be able to partake in reading pleasures. In the bath, or in bed, or even curled up on the couch on a rainy Sunday afternoon. I aim to teach myself to read and nurse as soon as possible (and I maintain this will happen. I have taught myself to read and floss, and read and knit, and I’ve even been caught out reading while bbq-ing, then the steaks got burned, but nevertheless…). But I realize this achievement will take considerable practice, and further, that my mind will be so fuzzy due to sleep deprivation, reading might actually prove cognitively impossible.

So what to do with the time that is left while my reading is still leisurely and free? First, I’ve increased that time, quitting work two weeks before my due date, and I fully intend to spend that fortnight reading a novel a day. (Alternatively, the baby might come early, which would be ok too. I’d miss out on fourteen books, but then I wouldn’t have to be pregnant anymore). But what books will I fill that time with?

The easiest answer would be rereading, of course, for then I’d be sure in advance of not wasting my limited time. Revisiting my favourite books, the ones I try to reread every year– Carol Shields Unless, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, anything by Margaret Drabble. Getting all thematic, I want to reread mothering memoirs– Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work and Anne Enright’s Making Babies. And to reread a Laurie Colwin novel, because she writes about pregnancy and babies like nobody else does.

But then there’s finishing books too– The Paris Review Interviews Vol.1 has been sitting on my bedside for ages, alongside Vol. 2 of Virginia Woolf’s Diary. I’m not sure whether to barrel through these, or to quietly put them back on the shelf and say nothing more of the matter to anyone.

Now, if I were actually dying, I’d hope I’d possess some proportion. But because I know that one day far off in the way distant future, I’ll have time to pick up a novel again, and also because I’m so partial to melodrama (atavistic, left over from teenage), that even though to resort to rereads would be safest, I can’t help being frantic with the thought of all the new books I can’t miss. Kate Christensen’s novel Trouble is out soon, Margaret Drabble’s got a new memoir out in the UK, I’m glad I got the new Zoe Heller in already, I’m now reading Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, just finished The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The new Descant is still waiting, not too long ago arrived in the post. And I won’t even mention what I’ve got on hold at the library. Or the numerous books I still mean to “get around to reading”, which I’ll not mention by name for fear of offending their poor neglected authors.

So I’m not being very sensible. If I were a better me, I’d be focusing, prioritizing. I’d probably also be picking up the kind of book that will teach me to change a diaper, or perform the infant heimlich, but then I’d have to give up sleeping already. And I can’t. So the stack of other books-to-be-read remains ever-high, and I console myself by imagining how much worse it would be if it wasn’t.

Encounters With Books: in particular, those small ones that arrive in the mail with every season


I am one of those people in whom the headline “Canadian literary magazines in peril” strikes a note of dreaded fear. And of course, because I’m one of those people, I read it first at Bookninja, that provisions in the Canadian Federal budget “will force Heritage Canada CMF to drop funding for magazines with circulations under 5,000, which is essentially every lit mag out there, as well as a whole host of others.”

Contemplating this, I felt like a puppy-lover watching The Humane Society burn down. I was galvanized enough to shortly thereafter click to join the Coalition to Keep Canadian Heritage Support for Literary and Arts Magazines on Facebook, an easy automatic gesture, and ever since then I’ve been thinking seriously about Canadian literary magazines, why they’re worth supporting, what they mean to me, and to the rest of Canada.

Because there really aren’t a lot of people like us, the 2670 coalition supporters on Facebook. I know this for a fact, because whenever my work is published in a literary magazine, my Mom spends a good week or two trying to track down the issue, and keeps me up to date on the chase– the Chapters employee who has never heard of the magazine (which my mom has never heard of either), and then the issue is late arriving in stock, and then there’s only one copy and someone else has bought it (and that was probably my Dad).

It is a very small world, that of those of us who’d gasp in horror at the thought of literary magazines in peril. It’s a tiny world, insular and incestuous, staffed by volunteers, where the writers are often the readers, particularly when “free” subscriptions are their pay. These magazines are labours of love, and those labours are perhaps the only not-tiny thing about them. In addition to the force of the work inside them, of course, and the painstaking detail of their layout and design, and the cost of printing, and the communities that build up around them. Of course, of course, but then I’m biased.

As a writer, I have been rejected by most of the best literary magazines in Canada. I’ve received handwritten notes, form letters, scraps of paper addressed to somebody else, and snarky missives scrawled in ballpoint. From all over the country, I have received envelopes addressed to me in my own handwriting (the SASE, sent with every submission, which writer Nathan Whitlock has noted is “kind of like making soldiers go into battle carrying their own body bags”). And I’ve kept track of every one of these rejections, because they stand up as proof that I’m writing, that I’m trying. Every rejected story getting worked over again, and then being sent out (with bodybag) even better than it was the last time.

Which must be true, because every once in a while, one of these stories gets accepted. Usually by email, and you can tell these are good news because they begin with “Congratulations…”, and don’t end with, “…and we decided it was just not right for us.” Thus beginning a correspondence with the magazine’s editorial staff (the volunteers, the labourers of love), who treat my work with such seriousness and consideration that it makes worthwhile every single hour I’ve spent at my writing desk. Who do me the honour of publishing my work, so I can feel less like someone who writes, and more like a writer.

I am an ordinary Canadian. As proof of this I offer the forty hours I spend at work every week, the importance to me of my friends and my family, a fondness for drinking beer outside on warm summer days, and a familiarity with the works of the band Trooper. And like so many other ordinary Canadians, I also like to make things. For twenty two of my thirty years, I’ve been writing poems and stories, perhaps in response to the literature I love so much to read, but also because by now I don’t know how not to. I think I’d write stories if I was the only person left in the world, if the stories just went on to live inside a drawer. But it means something enormous that they don’t have to.

Behind every rejection I’ve ever received is someone who folded a piece of paper into three and licked the envelope shut. Considering the number of rejections I’ve received, that licking and folding has required an enormous amount of manpower, and I am just one ordinary Canadian. From this you may begin to understand the amount of resources necessary to produce a magazine. And that there is really nothing small about these literary magazines after all, except their readership. If you consider 5000 small, that is, and I’m not sure that I actually do.

It is with some shame that I’ll admit to coming into the whole lit-mag thing a bit backwards. I’m sure I’m not alone in this either, that I didn’t actually start reading them until I wanted them to publish me. Certainly before, I didn’t realize what I was missing. Occupied by mainstream media (a considerable distraction) I hadn’t noted the book-sized hole in my life that could be filled with exciting poetry and fiction by new and established Canadian writers.

Literature begets literature, I firmly believe, and so that I came to the reading via writing isn’t the point. What is much more important is the fact that I’m hooked. That the arrival of these magazines in my mailbox brings a frisson of joy, and I devour them slowly (does that make sense? To hungrily savour?). That I still get far more rejections than I do acceptances, but I can participate in the literary community as much as a reader, and there’s such pleasure in that. That I should be magnanimous and note the numerous household name Canadian writers who’ve found their starts in small magazines, but instead I’ll tell you the ones I’m most glad I’ve found there– Anne Fleming, Terry Griggs, Amy Jones, Anne Germanacos, Christine Pountney, Heather Birrell, etc. Etc.

Government support of artists is a touchy subject, so I’ll avoid it, but less controversial– it has to be– is support of arts. This is a matter of principle. It’s about supporting endeavours that whole communities build up around, and even if these communities number less than 5000, well then, don’t also a large number of towns? These subscription bases don’t seem so small then, and neither do the magazines, so bursting with substance that they have to be stuffed into ordinary Canadian mailboxes all over the country. The mailboxes of ordinary Canadians like me who like to read things, and who like to make things, and receive an enormous amount of well-being from there being places to send our body bags to. Because body bags mean at least that we have bodies. It means at least that we are here.

They’re not for everyone, literary magazines, as evidenced by the (lack of) enthusiasm for them at the Peterborough Chapters. But any ordinary Canadian who reads has benefited from these platforms for emerging writing (…coming soon to your mainstream press). Any Canadian with an appreciation for the arts benefits from our country’s stellar literary reputation, and can catch a ride on its coattails. Any Canadian who values Canadianness must surely know that we’re a country founded of small communities, often isolated from one another, and that, at our best, it was mutual support that ensured our survival and created the nation we are today.

(Image by Stuart Lawler at Create Me This)

Encounters with books: on reading challenges


So many books, so many readers. There is something, I think, about the sheer infinitude of unread books in the world that inspires feats of literary endurance. About the illusionary solitude of the reading experience that drives readers to reach out to one another, and read together. It is an urge similar to but less insane than that towards competitive eating, for example, which also takes a mundane/delightful aspect of ordinary life and exploits its very limits. In both activities, however, gluttony is the rule of the game.

Speaking of gluttony, and how I was perhaps put off reading challenges at an early age: there was a program when I was at school that awarded coupons for personal pan pizzas at Pizza Hut to students who read a certain number of books in a month. This is the last reading challenge that I remember taking part in. I remember that the pizzas were really small. Also, that obtaining the coupon was less of a challenge than it was supposed to be, because I was as voracious a reader as I was an eater.

So there is that. And then there are the Guinness World Record-setting reading challenges, which certainly shrink the personal pan ones down to size. January 27 was Family Literacy Day, an initiative by ABC Canada and their sponsor Honda. An attempt was made across Canada to set the World Record for number of adults and children reading together, and early forecasts indicate success— over 190,000 participants registered to read Munschworks 2 and break the 2006 US record of 79,000.

It is online, however, where reading challenges abound (and without even the promise of tiny pizza or world records as reward). Read a self-confessed reading challenge junkie’s addiction outlined by Sassymonkey to get a better idea of the phenomenon, which apparently comes with its own structures, rules, and need for organization via spreadsheet. She links to numerous challenges out there, including The Short Story Reading Challenge, Africa Reading Challenge, and the sort of confusing What’s in a Name? Challenge (“read one book each that has a colour, animal, first name, place, weather event and plant in its title”). And if there’s a challenge idea out there that no one else has thought of yet, then go on and set it for yourself.

At The Booker Club, Guardian blogger Sam Jordison is busy “Looking Back at the Booker”, rereading the prize’s less-remembered previous winners. Melanie and Alexis are Roughing It In the Books, having challenged themselves to read/reread the entire New Canadian Library. Back in August, blogger Steven Beattie set himself a substantial reading/blogging challenge when he decided to read and write about 31 Short Stories in 31 Days. John Mutford of The Book Mine Set spearheads The Canadian Book Challenge. Challenge yourself to read Canada Reads. And then there are all the prize short lists, longlists, backlists, and those 1000 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

There are bloggers whose margins are absolutely cluttered with “buttons” of all the reading challenges in which they’ve partaken. Overwhelming, I think, as a meandering reader who likes floating easy from one book to another. But apparently the challenge itself is the key, and not necessarily completion. Sassymonkey reveals, “To be perfectly honest I’ve never successfully finished a challenge I’ve started.” Which really isn’t anything to get anxious about, as long as you imagine that time is as unlimited as the books are.

Encounters With Books: During a Credit Crunch Christmas


Because I like both cereal and alliteration, I still call it the Credit Crunch, even though it has since ballooned into a Global Economic Crisis, or a Meltdown, and even the government calls it a Recession (which is sort of like a “Blip“, but only deeper). And I can afford to be so flippant, because I had no investments to lose, and I own no house to be devalued, and as the standards I’m accustomed to are decidedly modest, my lifestyle will be maintained. Though I may be wrong in assuming video rentals and having friends over for spaghetti and $10 bottles of wine even counted as a lifestyle in the first place.

It is not so much having nothing to lose, which would be to devalue the myriad things I do possess– friends at all, $10, pasta, an apartment whose kitchen
is a tiny kind of heaven. But these are infallible things as the world economies crumble, making our choices seem even sensible than usual.

Perhaps the world is a saner place? Family of the man trampled in the WalMart shopping rampage would probably disagree, but maybe it just has yet to trickle down all the way. Because while consumers have become apparently more cautious, and buying big screen TVs has become a less attractive prospect, it happened that during the snowmageddon blizzard last Friday morning, I had the great pleasure of walking off a deserted street into an independent bookstore and finding it absolutely rammed.

For the cautious consumer at Christmas time, can there be a better financial choice than buying a book? Bringing guaranteed appreciation, for there is no book so loved as an old one. No batteries required, no assembly demanded, and a book will most likely get through Christmas Day without being broken (unless you count the spine). A well-chosen book won’t meet its obsolescence for many years, and will wear reasonably well with use. Any minor physical problems can usually be prepared with a bit of tape.

And then there’s the question of where your money goes– I don’t know about you, but shopping bags stuffed with books is consumerism to feel good about. Particularly if those (reusable) bags are from your local independent bookseller, if you’ve purchased books by Canadian authors, and those published by independent Canadian publishers in particular. In these harsh economic times, ours is to spend but spend wisely, and book buying is an investment whose ripple effect is undeniably positive.

So, how to decide which books to buy? Fortunately for you, dear shopper, you’ve got a plethora of recommendations at your disposal, and you’ll shop easily knowing that, unlike most retail outlets, a bookstore has something for everyone. For those who love fiction and non, for babies and centenarians, popular books and literary books, and quite literally everything from a-z.

Encounters with Books: And Hotels

Descant 142 was such a perfect marriage of theme and content– literature about hotels. Not to mention the pictures, including a colour spread of Gladstone Hotel suites and Arnaud Maggs‘ portfolio “Hotels of Paris” (of which the cover photo shown here is a part). I was excited to see a table of contents containing some authors I like very much– Margaret Atwood, Camilla Gibb, Catherine Bush– and as I read through the issue, I was impressed with the variety of approaches each writer brought to the subject (which is fascinating, since most of the stories’ destinations were similarly lovers’ trysts).

As the entire magazine makes clear, hotels are ideal places for story, their neutrality offering even the most conventional character the opportunity to act out of type. They are ideal meeting places for strangers who’d never assemble together anywhere else, with thin walls offering such intimacy. To be at once foreign and familiar, for a character to be both home and away. Things happen here, as evidenced by the fact that when I started brainstorming literary hotels with some friends, we went to town.

As follows (edited for space): the beginnings of The Bell Jar and of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner, Forster’s A Room with a View, “most detective fiction”, Down and Out in Paris and London, Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for a Bananafish”, Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, Sharon Butala’s short story “Fever”, much of Henry James, Stephen King’s The Shining, and (of course) Eloise. Also The Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton, which is referenced in passing in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, such a reference altogether important as I stayed there on my honeymoon.

Stepping out of fiction, I also found a video of Russell Smith on hotels in literature, New York City’s Library Hotel, and Five Literary Hotels worldwide. Also the British survey compiled by hotel chain Travelodge of most-discarded books in hotel rooms from 2007 and from 2008, which includes political memoirs, celebrity autobiographies, and a Harry Potter. Also interestingly On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, which might suggest that people in hotels don’t like reading about people in hotels, but I don’t know.

I do know that I set out to write this blog entry and entitle it “Encounters with Books: Reading in Hotels”. Inspired by Descant 142, and Russell Smith’s comments about hotels proving a most fruitful place for writers, I figured readers would have a similar experience. But when I stayed at a hotel some weeks ago, I found that it wasn’t the case.

The neutrality providing writers with the space to imagine and think does not serve to create a passionate reading experience. I’ve written before here about books read while traveling, books read on vacation, both offering reading experiences that can be most profound, but these experiences tend to take place in verdant parks, under sunny skies, on a train with entire countries whipping by outside the window, and in crowded cafes noisy with foreign tongues and espresso machines.

Whereas a hotel room is a void. Empty drawers, empty closets, naked hangers, untouched stationary, unstained towels, with the water glasses sterilized and wrapped in plastic so you know. This is not a place that stays with you, the whole reason a writer can escape to anywhere. And the reader can escape inside his book, of course, but he brings nothing of his surroundings with him. When he remembers the book, he won’t remember where he read it, and he’ll remember the hotel, but not even that he read.

Encounters with Books: Via Recommendations

Book recommendations, I imagine, are like most advice– as much as I like to dish them out, I don’t always take them. There is too much riding on a fling with somebody else’s long-time beloved, and what if things don’t work out? Hurt feelings all around, as I start doubting their taste, and they start doubting mine. I’m sure friendships have ended over lesser things, and I’m not ready to take such a chance.

And of course, less admirably, there is usually the fact that I can’t be bothered. That my books-to-be-read are stacked up months in advance, and slotting something new into the pile will send my perilous tower a-toppling. That I am stubborn, somewhat annoying, and refuse to read historical fiction, books about soldiers in war, books about dogs, or people you meet in heaven.

(That I will not read Kate Grenville’s The Secret River is something my friend Britt and I can no longer talk about; I know even if I read it and hated it, she would be less annoyed, but… but… but…)

Though I do have my sources. Rona Maynard writes about books on her website, and her recommendations (for Lucky Jim, The Boys in the Trees, The Transit of Venus) have always been enthusiastically received. There are a lot of other bookish bloggers whose opinions I trust. Probably also, to my friend Britt’s credit, if she recommended a book that wasn’t The Secret River, I would read that too. And I have even had positive results from The Literature-Map, which generates an on-line explosion of “If you like this, you’ll love…” matches.

But I’ve had terrible experiences of recommended books just showing up on my doorstep to be loaned. Perhaps I am ungrateful, but I never wanted to read any of them, and the one I did (to be polite) stole an entire week of my life. Which makes me feel fortunate that a woman I met last summer at a book festival didn’t know where I lived– I was sitting on a bench reading Silent Girl by Tricia Dower, when she plopped down to preach a sermon on how I had to read Emily Giffin, who “writes about people like you and me.” Or that everyone who insisted I had to read Harry Potter eventually forgot about their mission to make me do so.

I prefer to take my book recommendations from a higher power. You know, when one friend tells you about a book, and then you read about it in the paper the next day, and later that week someone else tells you they loved it, and then you receive a copy for your birthday from your mother? Take it as a sign. Similarly, when that book you’ve been considering appears in the window of a bookstore around the corner– they put it there for you.

But of course, I don’t even take my own advice. For this morning I started reading the short story collection Too Far to Go by John Updike, after long hearing it championed by my good friend RR. Though she didn’t actually recommend I read it– RR knows better, that our reading tastes are not identical, and she is too polite to foist anything upon anyone. (Perhaps she is also clever enough to know not-foisting is the quickest way to my heart.) But rather, after so many of her descriptions piquing my interest, and hearing an excerpt read at Seen Reading, I finally went out quietly and bought the book of my own accord. Opening it up, taking care to crack the spine as silently as possible, because here is a chance that I’m taking. While I have every intention of liking this book, the off-chance I won’t will require acrobatic diplomacy.

(Image by Create Me This)

Encounters With Books: At the Book Sale


I anticipate the Victoria College Book Sale every year throughout the year, looking forward to the next one as soon as the current sale is through. This year it was in July that, staring up at a blue sky in a green and sunny park, I dared to wish the summer away with the thought of the next sale’s soonness. My one consolation for this dying time of year with its crunchy leaves and chilly breezes. The book sale, oh and squash (yum) are what autumn is for, and in neither have I ever failed to find my heart’s desire.

Imagine a pink castle stuffed with books, manned by volunteers wearing red ribbons and struggling to tame unruly debit machines. Imagine these volunteers (these Friends of the Victoria College Library) anticipating the Book Sale even before I do, working throughout the year deep in the bowels of the library to organize donated books into a system of which friends of a library would be proud. The result being a control freak’s sweet dream, everything in its place, whether its place be “Fiction A-C”, “Microwave Cookery”, “Spy/Mystery” (which stretches on over the horizon), or “Bibles.”

Maps are offered upon arrival, but I’ve been so many times I know the layout by heart. I start upstairs with “Fiction” (which is distinct from “Literature” and “Canadian Literature”– both are downstairs). Beginning with the A’s of course, because I like order, being a friend of libraries too, even if not a card-carrying one.

And it is always here where I thank Goodness (for indeed, who else would I thank?) that my taste in fiction is so unfashionable. That my love of books by British lady-novelists in particular makes for such easy acquisition, because such books seem to be thrown out by other people by the shedload. While fans of David Foster Wallace, or Dave Eggars, or somebody equally trendy (so much so that I’ve never heard of them) will perpetually come away from the sale empty-handed, I show up with a suitcase. A carryon suitcase mind you, but it is so easily stuffed with paperbacks by Margaret Drabble, Hilary Mantel, Jenny Diski, Penelope Lively, Muriel Spark, A.S. Byatt, Alice Thomas Ellis, Susan Hill, Penelope Fitzgerald, etc. etc

Every year I hit the Book Sale on Half-Price Monday, once the books have been picked over and the prices are cheaper than cheap. It is not a question of economy, this scheduling, but rather I can’t imagine what the selection must be like before then. Perhaps this is when the trendy books are snapped up, but with that much choice, I think I’d go mad. My heart would have too much desire, I’d have some kind of attack, at the very least from struggling to haul boxes and boxes of books out the door.

This year my big finds included an original hardcover copy (absolutely beautiful) of Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel Flowers for Mrs. Harris. I’d been hoping for a copy of Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, and it turned up right where I was looking for it. Both 84 Charing Cross Road AND The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. A novel by Bharati Mukherjee, who I’ve just discovered through the Salon Des Refuses. Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier, oh and a huge stack of others.

Something to tide me over then, during the 360 days remaining before the fun begins again.

Encounters with Books: Again


I’ve had a feeling for a long time, that you’ve never truly been somewhere unless you’ve been there twice. Which I realized first in the context of travel, during a time in my life when every place I went was new to me. When to arrive meant to be without bearings, maps and guidebooks not wholly sufficient to bridge the gap between “you are here” and where you were trying to get to. Entire afternoons whiled away in search of something decent to eat, and the result would usually be disappointing– just a sandwich from some place by the station, because you’d run out of choices by then.

To return to a place, however, is something altogether different, more substantial. Comparing reality with your memory of it– a measure of how you’ve changed as much as the world around you. Retracing your own steps, familiar corners you’d almost forgotten. To come back to somewhere that was foreign once, and to know exactly where you are; when you can throw away the map, look all around, and just be in a place, experiencing all of its dimensions.

It is the very same with reading, with rereading. But the same problem too– with as many books as there are places to visit in the world, how can there possibly be time for repeating?

In my case there is time because there has to be. Because I insist on reading much too fast, leaping from one book to another as though it were the leap itself that really mattered. And so this is why, for the third summer in a row, I’m embarking upon my own rereading project.

My rereading project devotes the summer months to revisitation, of books I’ve read recently and would like to consider one again (this year, Divisidero, Late Nights On Air); books I read as an undergraduate, the experiences of most of which have disappeared into a black hole in my mind (Heart of Darkness); the books I know I read once, but have forgotten altogether (A Prayer For Owen Meany). Some books I’ll reread because they’re particularly timely (this year is the Anne of Green Gables centennial, and I’ll also be rereading Justine Picardie in light of her latest novel Daphne). And finally, the books I reread every year– my own favourites. The project is an excuse, of course, for the third summer in a row, to reopen Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Unless.

Those two books in particular are my touchstones– how they change every year, which I think is a testament to their writers’ mastery. When you come to know a book terribly well, it is easier to fixate on the supposedly-incidental– the construction of a single sentence, the rhythm of the prose. When I started to read Unless last summer, I read the first page five times in a row. Interesting also how personal experiences transpiring during the time in between will highlight aspects of the book that might have before escaped my attention.

I also have enjoyed finding things within my books. Not so much my notes from a high school reading of To the Lighthouse (how embarrassing!), but cryptic marginalia in my own hand is quite fascinating. In 2000, on page 59 of Mrs. Dalloway, I wrote “Your prism grasp”, but I don’t know why. Its origins are probably embarrassing too, but at least I’ve forgotten them.

When I reread The Robber Bride in 2006, I found a two dollar and one dollar bill that I’d put away during the mid ’90s when they went obsolete. Within books I also enjoy finding inscriptions, bookmarks and any other paraphernalia that serve to illuminate where I’d been when I first them.

But of course the best things to rediscover are the books themselves, their stories and their characters. As paradoxical as it might seem, a rereading is often more ripe for discovery than the first time around. How sympathy towards certain characters has changed, your own perspective on their situations. Authorial tricks, only evident if you already know the ending.

And then that eerie feeling of anticipating a line of text in a book you can’t even remember having read. How rereading serves to underline your reading experience, helping to cement certain books in your mind. Discovering also how stories that once resonated deeply don’t mean so much now, and how others that didn’t now do.

Encounters With Books: And The Histories Inside Them

“When we’re reading, the book is our new land, our frontier; finding the distinctive marks of a previous reading is like discovering a fossilized campfire site or cave-wall drawing: evidence of ancestors. […The] bookmark has the greatest capacity for unintended frisson, offering up not just an act of reading, but beautiful clues as to how that reading, the book itself, intersected with the verities of modern existence in the outside world.”– Michael Atkinson, “Other People’s Bookmarks”, The Believer

I’ve become obsessed with New Zealand writer Emily Perkins since reading her new book, Novel About My Wife, and then of course I had to read everything else she’d ever done. Borrowing her two previous novels from the university library, and when her 1997 short story collection Not Her Real Name turned up nowhere, I ordered it used online. The book arrived, as fantastic as I’d hoped it would be, but as entrancing was its treasure– the stub of an airplane boarding pass I found tucked inside.

The stub was a clue to the past, revealing that once upon a time, my copy (for it was only waiting then) of Not Her Real Name took a trip across the sea. On the 8th of September during some undisclosed year, from New York to Milan, via Delta Airlines. Seat 10E to be specific, in the hands of one Devin Moore (who is probably not the “Life is video-game” murderer, as I doubt that Devin Moore ever got to go to Milan).

I can discern that my Devin Moore had fine taste in books, or at least a good recommender, and either took great care with this one (the condition is pristine, though what need is there for dog-ears when boarding passes will do?) or fell asleep for the long-haul and never actually read it. Didn’t actually care to keep it either, for eventually the book found its way to Powells. And why, I wonder, did Moore let the book go? The thought of this lets me down a bit, regarding my ideal Moore, but perhaps the gesture was always meant to facilitate the book’s passage to me.