Column: Even fancy words can’t save some relationshipsJanuary 3, 2013
By SCOTT SAALMAN
I like what novelist Barbara Kingsolver told Bob Edwards on his talk show: “Books are my first, last and enduring love.”
I concur. I don’t recall ever not having an intense relationship with books.
The other day, driving, I spotted a book in the middle of the street. I pulled over to rescue it, much like I have done for suicidal turtles. It could’ve been tragic, but the paperback was intact. No tire marks. It was Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.” It’s not every day you find a book in the street, a first for me in a lifetime of reading.
How does one lose a book in the street? It can’t just fly out the window like a Burger King wrapper. Is “Cosmos” so bad that the reader tossed it? Inside was a dollar serving as a book marker. There was also a sales invoice from a car dealer service department. I was familiar with the name on the invoice and knew where the guy lived. I put “Cosmos” on his doorstep. It was the right thing to do.
I smugly consider myself a monogamous reader. I read one book at a time. Having multiple books in progress — or even having that secret one “on the side” — is akin to infidelity in the reading realm. That is not how I roll.
My mother, though, is a book floozy. She unabashedly juggles many books. She strategically stations one in each room of her house. What she reads is reliant on where she is when the reading mood strikes. I don’t know how she keeps all those competing plots and characters straight. It’s just not right. She’s cheating herself as much as she’s cheating on her books.
Mom’s not the only one. Even Troy, a reading pal that I truly respect for his book choices, told me he has the following titles in progress: “2666,” “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “Midnight’s Children,” “Washington,” “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and “Chronic City.”
“Seriously, I have an issue! I usually have an ”˜active’ book, which means I’m seriously working on finishing that one — ”˜Washington’ is the book right now — and the rest sit around, waiting to be picked up and paid attention to,” he says. “I’m sure it can be sad to be a book in my house, as the neglect can last for years. For instance, I’m halfway through ”˜2666’ but haven’t touched it since late 2010.”
One of my reading rules: Be true to your book — unless the book isn’t true to you. Last winter I uncharacteristically broke up with a book in progress, Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” despite the love it received from others. “Dazzling,” said People. “Awesome,” said Time. “Gripping,” said The New York Times. “Brilliant,” said Entertainment Weekly. Who writes these one-word reviews — the barn spider from “Charlotte’s Web?” I’m waiting for someone to tell us that Chabon’s book is “Radiant.”
Sorry, “Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” I just wasn’t that much into you. Perhaps you were too cerebral for a Midwesterner. The glossary in the book’s back pages was warning enough that I was in for a rough read — that and the fact that chess fits prominently in the plot.
By Page 50 — that’s a fair test for any book — my eyes began to stray. The unread books stacked on my nightstand, those on-deck temptresses, lured me with their siren’s song. They looked much easier on the eyes. I started experiencing readers’ block, losing focus, losing joy. I trudged on, smacking myself awake, even while thinking, “I wish I knew how to quit you.” Completing it became a chore. My heart just wasn’t in it.
Weakened by a reader’s roving eye, I tried the fit of the other books in my hands, flirting as I flipped through their pages. I cheated on Chabon. I placed the final dog-ear on Page 131, marking the premature end of our reading relationship.
I always feel guilty giving up on a book, especially the critically acclaimed ones. Chabon’s is not the only one I failed to finish. I shared these feelings with writer friend Margaret McMullan. She made me feel better when I learned she couldn’t finish James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” this coming from a prestigious award-winning author with the magnificent fancy book-learnin’ title of Melvin M. Peterson Endowed Chair in Literature and Writing Department of Creative Writing, University of Evansville. “I still just stare at the pages,” she confesses. If Margaret can jilt Joyce, then surely there should be no qualms with me calling it off with Chabon.
There is a positive side to this. The grass proved greener on the other side. The breakup allowed me to find love in other books. I have started and finished several since, savoring each, one title at a time. I’m currently reading “Canada,” by one of my favorite living writers, Richard Ford. I am taking this one slow — on purpose — prolonging the final Ford word of the final Ford paragraph of the final Ford page. Some books you just never want to quit.
Scott Saalman’s book of humor essays, “Nose Hairs Gone Wild,” can be purchased by calling him at 827-9911 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or via his blog at scottsaalman.wordpress.com. The e-book version can be downloaded for the Kindle via Amazon.com.
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