I’m fussy about my books. I take recommendations only from people whose taste in literature I admire. I usually buy one book at a time, after much consideration and consultation. And I scrupulously reread the good ones — at least once, often two or three times — as soon as I finish them. I read once for story, once for structure, once for the pure poetry of beautifully written words.
But the stay-at-home order found me short on new books, out of old books I hadn’t recently reread and the happy recipient of a bag full of books.
A grocery bag full: the unit measure for romance novels and pulp fiction.
Some friends were cleaning out their bookshelves (a proper pandemic thing to do) and wanted to know if I’d take a look at what they were getting rid of.
“I’ll take them all!” was my enthusiastic reply — until I learned that they were giving up seven grocery bags full of books.
We decided it would be prudent to pare it down to a single bag and talked about titles. I hoped for a couple of biographies, the new Michael Ondaatje, maybe some John le Carré, some Alan Furst.
Said bag o’ books arrived on my front porch and, after letting them sit for the probably unnecessary three days, I took a look. No biographies or Ondaatje. Not even a le Carré or Furst. Only authors and titles I’d never heard of.
This was in the early days of the shutdown. The weather was awful and I’d already washed the floors, walls and woodwork and still couldn’t ease a gnawing, indeterminate anxiety.
I didn’t have it in me to keep manically cleaning the house and I couldn’t seem to settle into any other mindless chore (who cares about the damn spice rack?). Even the creative activities I thought I’d immerse myself in (the quilt I’d started months ago, maybe) just didn’t appeal.
And so I reached into the grocery bag, grabbed the book on the top of the pile and started reading.
And kept reading.
I read without turning down the corners of pages to mark meaningful passages, without stopping to savor phrases, without reading aloud (out of context, of course) to my husband as he passed through the room.
I didn’t wait for one book to settle, didn’t revisit my favorite characters or replay the plot in my mind, checking for holes, before I started another.
Three days and five books later, I stopped, cold turkey.
I felt as if I were coming off a junk food bender, as if my normal salad-loving self had been consuming nothing but Diet Coke and potato chips.
The books weren’t bad, really. They were light and enjoyable, a mix of chick lit and not-so thrilling thrillers. The written equivalent of easy listening. And I’d discovered a few authors (including Tash Aw) I’d like to read more of. But for the most part, they’d been unremarkable and indistinguishable.
And oddly comforting.
Hunkering down on my sofa and reading nonstop had taught me something: It was OK to read just to read.
A week or so later, I heard from the friends who’d given me the books. They wanted to know if I still had them and if I could I return them. Seems they’d given me the wrong bag.
They have another bag waiting for me. The books I’d been expecting, the ones I know I’ll read and reread.
I’m looking forward to having them dropped off on my front porch, looking forward to reading them. But I hope there’s a cheesy whodunit or even a bodice ripper in the mix.
I’ll always love salad, but it’s not so bad to have the crunching palate cleanser of potato chips every now and then.
Connie Nelson is an editor at the Star Tribune.