books

I only discovered in the past year a little genre of books that seem to be called bibliomemoirs. These are memoirs based on books read in a lifetime. They generally will talk about how a book was read at various points in time and how the reading reflects on the person at that time and shaped their life or character.

Some titles that were mentioned online include The Unexpected Professor by John Carey, How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, Books for Living by Will Schwalbe and Maureen Corrigan’s in Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading. The better ones, for me, are not so much book lists but true memoirs where books offer a structure to the life stories.  That kind of book follows the often given advice to writers to find the universal in the particular.

I just picked up a copy of a new one in the genre, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. The author, Pamela Paul, looks like a college student but she is the editor of the New York Times Book Review and has four other books to her name already. Like myself 25 years earlier, she started recording what she was reading while in high school. She started with a basic Excel spreadsheet but lost it at some point and switched to a paper “Book of Books” (the Bob of her title). This new book doesn’t cover all the books she has read (thank goodness) but selects ones as chapter titles for parts of her life.

Bibliophiles will identify with this even if they don’t record all their reading or reflect in writing on them. These days I tend to just list titles in a journal and write about selected ones online (as I’m doing here). I wish I had kept a memoir of books in a kind of journal along the way, but I’m not sure that my reading has always mirrored or reflected on my life at the time.

For Pamela Paul, Swimming to Cambodia is the book that heads the section about her living and traveling in Asia for two years after college. She uses The Wisdom of the Body for the chapter about an assignment to work on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.  It’s a bit of a cheat on the idea that your life and reading run parallel. For example, she returns to the book A Wrinkle in Time as a chapter title in writing about reading with her three children and editing reviews of children’s books.

She gives all of us some credit for being writers, even if we don’t publish or publish in the traditional sense.

“Aren’t we all writers these days? We live through text. With our status updates and our e-mails, many of us spend our days writing down more words than we speak aloud. Anyone can write a book or post a story and find readers. Even those whose book reviews live exclusively on Amazon or Goodreads or in diaries or in the text of e-mails are still active creators of the written word.”

I enjoy looking back at my lists, but without commentary, the titles don’t mean as much. Looking at the posts I have written here about books, I have a much better sense of how the book fit into my life at the time. Some of those posts have some of “me” (as in memoir) in them, but some do not.

I’ve written a number of times about Moby Dick, a book I return to pretty regularly, but I don’t think I have really examined why I was reading or rereading the book at certain times in my life. That might an interesting experiment or post. Just this past week, I dipped into it again and the line that jumped out at me as relevant to this Trumpian time was “But shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship’s company down to doom with him?” 

Another book I return to is Walden. When I say “return” I don’t always mean “reread.” I sometimes only reread sections, and with a good number of books I love, like Walden, Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, A Confederacy of Dunces and others, I listen to them as audiobooks which is a very different experience (and one I now prefer). I first read Walden in high school and though it may have been for school work, I know it was at a time in my life when both the environment and the idea of getting away and writing were very much a part of my thinking.

I went through a Ray Bradbury period when I was in my early teens. I’ve written here about his Dandelion Wine as a book that certainly reminded me of earlier and more innocent summers. His novel Something Wicked This Way Comes is a novel about losing your youth and trying to hold onto it. It is a scary book I returned to when I shared it with my sons when they came to that point in their lives.

More recently, I came to the books by Marie Kondo on organizing and giving or throwing away the unneeded things in your life. Her books are mostly about real things, but her “Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is something that appealed to me literally and figuratively. They appeared when I needed to clean out junk in the cellar and garage, get rid of stuff from previous jobs and also get rid of a lot of the mental junk I have been hoarding for years.

My “book of books” would contain, like Pamela Paul’s Bob, lots of titles that really don’t connect to my life at the time when I read them. I can’t see any connection to my life at the time recently when I read The Goldfinch.  I just read George Saunders’ highly praised novel Lincoln in the Bardo and I can’t draw any parallels to my life – and I’m glad about that.

I just finished the novel 4 3 2 1 and that very long story has many connections to my life – not my current life though, but my past.  I am still sorting this one out and will write about it here some day.

Of course, like many bloggers, I have imagined that it would be great to take all my blogging and turn it into a book, but unlike Ms. Paul, I haven’t gotten to that stage yet.

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