When I think about my life and art, I think first about music. There’s a soundtrack to my life–I have an annoyingly crisp memory for where I was when I first heard a song, no matter how dreadful the song. (Wildfire, I’m looking at/listening to you.)
And yet, there’s also a book-track of my life, one that has shaped me every bit as much as the songs I’ve soaked up. No, I can’t remember where I was for every book that I’ve read. But there are some books where the reading of them was so consuming I forever associate a specific time, place, and emotional outlook with each one.
When I was five my little sister died. Prior to that my parents spent many a late afternoon visiting her in the hospital. I stayed at a neighbor’s house and read or watched TV. I know there were others in that house but all my memories–fallible–are of being alone. One afternoon–I think this must have been very close to the time my sister died–I remember reading very very slowly P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? That book, though it ends joyfully, is for me a terribly upsetting book. When I see it, I think of myself, so sad and anxious, feeling like that lost little bird.
One summer I went for a week of–I think–Girl Scout camp. I’d just finished fourth grade and had lost much of my interest in trying to earn more badges. So, every chance I could, I read Gone with the Wind. I thought it was astonishing–I’d never met a girl that had Scarlett’s power or professed beauty. I’d lay tummy down on the skimpy twin mattress in our cabin, kicking my heels, and imagining making clothes out of curtains or stealing someone’s husband. Both seemed equally improbable. I loved the book and–true confession–have never read it again. I feel sure I’d see it all so differently and I prefer the reader’s memory I have.
Other books over my tween and teen years are also evocative of a time and place. Scruples (so racy I had a hard time believing anyone really did those things) and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (so much hair) I read while babysitting at the next-door neighbors. We lived in Marin County, it was the 70’s, and the books the adults around me had were full of sex, transcendence, and war. Our seventh grade class had to read Go Ask Alice and I read the entire book one afternoon in our family’s deadly treehouse (a platform twenty feet up in the air in a eucalyptus tree). That book scared the holy hell out of me and shaped my view of drugs for years.
When I went to college, I read so much my memories of those years’ reading is a blur. The book I remember best is Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream. I read it in while at my grandparents house over Thanksgiving. They lived in a small Virginian town and, as I read Ms. Smith’s words about race in the pre-1960’s South, I felt exposed and known in the worst way. When I finished reading, I put the book down and went for a walk in the rain. I’ve never seen my history again in the same way.
I read Presumed Innocent in a hotel in Chicago where I whiled away a day waiting for my husband to take his boards. He came in, late in the day, full of stories about the experience and I just wanted him to go away so I could FINISH THE BOOK. I read Possession on a rooftop in Key West, on the first vacation we took after we had our first, very colicky baby. I am not sure I’ve enjoyed a book more–I lost myself in Byatt’s language, sobbed over the tragic lovers, and adored not having to take care of any one but me for three whole days.
I listened, night after night, to the audiobook of The Time Traveler’s Wife, at a time when my own marriage felt fragile. Experiencing Claire’s and Henry’s extraordinary love and horrific loss helped me make sense of why I so wanted to stay married. When Henry died, I cried so hard I had to get up and change my pillowcase.
When I think back over the past twenty years, there are few book memories that are stronger for me than the one I associate with Jennifer Egan’s The Invisible Circus. I read it on vacation with my entire family, up in the Appalachian mountains. I had two small children, a husband, my siblings, my parents, and a pair of close family friends to spend time with. I wasn’t interested in any of them. Egan’s heroine, a girl of 18, is living in San Francisco in 1978. Her experiences, thoughts, longings, and fears were so similar to mine at the same time in my life–I was 17 in 1978 and had just moved away from Northern California–it was uncanny. I took the book with me everywhere, read it at the lake and gave thanks that lifeguards were paying close attention to my children as they played in the shallow baby pond. The book consumed me–I felt as if I were reading a possible version of my life, one that didn’t happen but could have. When I finished it, I began it again. I read it twice that week. I’m not sure I’ve ever done that with another book in quite the same obsessive way.
How about you? What indelible book memories do you have?