There’s a lot of garbage in my mother’s car. Not candy wrappers and soda cans, but any variety of things, including bags of potting soil that have somehow gotten open, old dog toys, phone chargers, a Discman that no longer works, undefined plastic objects that look as though they have something to do with a radiator, or a sink, or I’m not sure what. Depending upon what is going on in her life, the items change. But there will always be a pile of books in the passenger seat, often from the library, and undoubtedly fiction. She may be transporting them but it’s more likely she has them in arm’s reach in case she has to wait somewhere.
I read Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of the Lion at least ten years ago, and yet I remember the encounter when Clara Dickens, after years of not being in touch with her lover Patrick, waits for hours at the other end of the phone. After apologizing for the wait, Patrick asks, “You’re not carrying a book?” and she answers, “That’s right. I forgot you’re the man who taught me to always carry a book….”
If I could I would carry a book with me wherever I wandered. But since I live in a city where my primary mode of transportation is walking, and I’m generally carrying at least one other bag (holding my version of potting soil, dog toys, or indescribable plastic things), I’ve stopped stashing my library hardcover in my handbag. In preparation for transport on the D-train, dental appointments, or a date with an established latecomer, I’ll bring The New Yorker, provided there’s something to read in it. If not, panic ensues, similar to the alarm I feel when going away on a trip without a surefire, long enough to last, good read. I rarely bring enough clothes (and never the right ones) but always bring too many books. Where does this fear originate? Could it be some sort of survivor neurosis that has been passed down in my DNA from literature-deprived ancestors?
Clearly Michael Ondaatje understands, as does Nick Hornby who writes in The Polysyllabic Spree:
“…my third son was born. I mention his arrival not because I’m after your good wishes or sympathy, but because reading is a domestic activity, and is therefore susceptible to any changes in the domestic environment….
“Shortly after the birth of [my] son, I panic that I will never be able to visit a bookshop again, and that therefore any opportunity I have to buy printed matter should be exploited immediately. Jesse…was born shortly before 7 a.m.; three or four hours later I was in a newsagent’s.”
The Polysyllabic Spree is a collection of clever, brilliant, and entertaining essays that Nick Hornby wrote for The Believer magazine about reading. Every month he wrote about the books he’d read and bought, and a whole bunch of other stuff—sort of what I’m trying to do. However, he writes beautifully and is far more insightful and interesting than I. He has two other collections of his columns, Housekeeping vs. The Dirt and Shakespeare Wrote for Money. They are engaging, and in lightweight, easy-to-carry paperback.