#97, Read 5 Non-fiction books, 2/5
The other day I ran out to pay the fines for a library book that had been forgotten on the back seat of my Jeep. Apparently it had been there for sixteen dollars and forty-five cents worth of days. I don’t like to accrue fines. I want to be a good friend to the library. I am proud to look at my library account online and read the words, Status: Good. It seems like it’s not just a reflection of my account, but it can also feel like an indication of my character. In the rare moments that my account has read Status: Delinquent, I have scrambled and sped to make it right again.
At the library, I made a quick pass by the audiobook section. It was the day I was driving to Orange County for the Lisa See book signing and I thought I would like to listen to one of her books during the hour long drive. None of Lisa See’s books were available that morning, but one title on the shelf did jump out at me. Literally. It was, “This is The Story of a Happy Marriage,” by Ann Patchett.
Though Ann Patchett is a successful novelist, the first time I heard her name was when Elizabeth Gilbert mentioned her in her book, Big Magic. Big Magic is another book I listened to on audio. I listened to it seven times. Every time I would get into the car and plug in my iPhone, the book would resume playing. When the book was finished, I would press play and it would start again from the beginning. There is something about hearing a book read, especially in the author’s voice, that really drives the point home. Big Magic rocked me. Without it, I would not have begun this blog. If you have a creative project in mind and you need the voice of an encouraging friend to help you make the leap, read Big Magic. It will give you the push you need.
Now, I want to talk about Ann Patchett here, but please allow me one more aside.
I need to mention the only other audiobook that I’ve listened to more than seven times. It is Pat Conroy’s, My Reading Life. I listened to that book for a month solid. I spent weeks listening to Pat’s love of the landscape, his adoration for his mother, his reverence for his teachers, and his reflections on the many books that have shaped him. I loved his accent and his humor and his way of making everything he witnessed into a poem. I felt his words burrow into my chest and become part of my flesh. I shared his pain and his joy. I felt I understood how his strengths and his frailties informed how he lived, both in the sunlight and in the shadows.
I was so sad to learn of his passing last week. There are a few of his books I have not yet read. I will buy them now and save them on a shelf. When I have trouble remembering that there are people in the world who break open, yet endure, and somehow never cease to be moved by the beauty all around them, I will take the books down from the shelf and read them. Pat Conroy always seemed to see the beauty. That beauty leapt and shimmered and showed itself to him. It begged to be made into prose, and gentleman that he was, he did the work. Through his pain and his triumph, he sat himself down and paid it tribute. I have read that every minute another species vanishes from our planet. With almost the same sense of tragedy, I feel now that there will be little beauties vanishing all over South Carolina, without Pat Conroy there to call our attention to them. I will miss the view from his part of the world and I will miss the sound of his voice.
Now, if you can imagine the low gentle lilt of Pat’s southern accent, or the jovial spunk of Elizabeth Gilbert’s singular vibe, you might understand how I listened to the first few minutes of Ann Patchett’s book and wondered just what exactly I’d gotten myself into. The book itself, seemed like an unlikely match for me. I would not have brought it home, but it leapt off the shelf at me. Twice. The first time I must have bumped it somehow because it came pitching forward off the shelf and I had to catch it. I saw the author’s name on the box and I remembered hearing her name in Big Magic. I read the description on the cover, and thought… nah. I wasn’t interested in reading about someone’s happy marriage. I put it back on the shelf.
I stepped into line to pay my fines and I heard the book drop onto the floor behind me. I went back to the spot to pick it up and I found I could not put it down. Fine, I thought. You can come for a ride with me. Jeez.
So when I put the first disc into the player, I’m not sure what I expected, perhaps a thunderbolt, but Ann Patchett’s direct language and plain approach did not strike me. She seemed an unlikely oracle. If Pat Conroy was a waltz, and Liz Gilbert was tap dancing, at first listen I felt that Ann Patchett was more like the high school chaperone who brandishes a stick to separate the dancers. I couldn’t imagine why this book would want to follow me home. I looked at it the way a dog person might look at a determined kitten who keeps jumping into her lap. Uh, hello? Can you not see who I am?
I have a rule when it comes to the reading of books. I call it the hundred page rule. Before I will walk away from a book, shake my head, and think “wow, what a waste of time”, I will give it a hundred pages. If after that investment, I cannot find anything to capture my interest, I will allow myself to put it down. I have empathy for writers. I want to show solidarity, so I make a solid effort. The upside of this rule is that I have found books, lovely transformative books, on the seventy-fifth page, though I had been ready to use it for kindling on the third page.
The downside of this rule, is that it’s often hard for me to put aside the book after the hundredth page even if I dislike it. I mean…. I’ve gotten this far. So I politely nod and smile as though I am seated next to an insurance salesman with bad breath who uses the dinner table as an invitation to tell me everything he knows about boat insurance, even though I have no boat.
Here’s the other thing I understand. Books are not flat, lifeless things. They shape shift depending on what we bring to them. If we are agitated and angry, a peaceful book can soothe us or it might make us more impatient. If we are despondent, a happy book might save us or it might make us feel more alone. I give a book a hundred pages, so that I have time to bring my best self to it. I let the pages press out my wrinkles, and invite me slowly into its conversation in the most engaged way possible.
Audiobooks wilt a little in this application. It is so easy to multitask that a book might not get the full attention it deserves. We may be glossing over a plot point as we shake our fists at an idiot driver, or we might miss a phrase that would otherwise resonate because the navigation system drowns it out by telling us it’s time to turn. This, I believe, was the case with Anne Patchett’s book.
I was distracted by driving someplace new. As I changed freeways and took orders from the new Morgan Freeman voice of Waze, Ann Patchett’s delivery felt flat and unemotional to me. I couldn’t connect to it. I was expecting opera and all I heard was the beat of a metronome.
I attended the Lisa See book signing and went home. A few days later, I was relaxed and remembered Ann Patchett’s book. I thought of the hundred page rule and I thought of how the book seemed to sink it’s teeth into my pant leg and refuse to let go. I went out to the car and fetched the discs. I sat back in my office and listened.
After the first few discs, I began to hear the music.
After the tenth disc, I was thick in the midst of an existentialist crisis. I was questioning my worth as a wife, as a friend, as a parent, as a creative person, and as a contributing member of society. What I had originally heard as cool and impersonal, was something else entirely. You see, Ann Patchett skimps on superlatives. She is more stealth and more skilled than that. Rather than tell you that she has tasted the greatest orange ever grown and then liken it to several exalted states of bliss, she will simply say, “I ate the orange.” If you are paying attention, you will know the significance of that orange by what is revealed in the words that came before it and by the ones that follow it. She doesn’t force intimacy by giving everything up at once, she lets you get to know her at her own measured pace. She offers up one small, refreshing slice at a time. There is no rush. You take the slices as they’re offered and as you chew you begin to see that the orange is not just an orange, it is part of an enormous tree whose branches spread wide and deep and play host to a hundred living things and hold hordes of fruit that are borne of seeds which were carried in the hems of skirts across continents. And each of those continents has stories and dreams that blow over them on the currents of ancient and unknowable winds.
Perhaps it is obvious that I might have a lot to learn from Ann Patchett?
Also, Ann Patchett is a grown-up. She balances her checkbook and teaches uninformed nuns how to balance theirs. She doesn’t get married on someone else’s timetable and she doesn’t have children because society tells her that she should. She takes total responsibility for herself, she doesn’t ask to be rescued, and she doesn’t expect to be congratulated. She works hard and doesn’t use her difficult childhood as a reason to slack. But don’t mistake her sensibility for a lack of passion, because she loves fiercely and quietly and without frilly sentiment. And because she’s not distracting you with confetti and glitter, there is weight and security and truth in it. Her examples of discipline and character cause you to question your own. She does not preach, but with each story you find you are wanting to improve yourself. When she is asked in the book, “Does your man make you a better person?,” she considers the question carefully. I find myself asking if her book can make me a better person and I am carefully considering how that might play out.
Ann Patchett is a novelist so it is probably unusual that I have only read, “This is The Story of a Happy Marriage.” It is not a novel. It is a collection of essays that she has written and adapted and strung together into a memoir. I am looking forward to reading her novels, and I’ll begin with Bel Canto and State of Wonder.
However, if you decide to read her books, don’t order them from Amazon. Ann happens to co-own a thriving independent bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee, called Parnassus Books. She champions independent booksellers everywhere and wants people to understand how bookstores are an important part of a healthy community. Also, any Ann Patchett books ordered from Parnassus will come to you signed by the author herself.
I’m not sure when the audiobook is due back at the library, but I’ll listen to it again and again as I drive through the streets of the Valley where it seems no one reads and our one generic bookstore is breathing the last desperate gasps of a caught fish drowning in air.
And then I’ll do what I always do. I’ll buy the book in print too. I will want to see the words on the page. I will want to hold it in my hands.
I’ll read it until I understand the message it has for me. Because if I am certain of anything, I know that I must force myself to be silent and listen closely to any book that demands so fervently, and so doggedly, to be read.
295 days to go!