I have had many jobs that I liked, and several that I’ve loved, but only one job that was perfect. That was working at the Book Nook, where my bosses, the Pelletters, insisted that we take books home and read them.
I graduated from college with my bachelor of arts degree in English in 1977. It was not a teaching degree; although many people urged me toward that, I vowed, in those heady days of feminism, that I would not teach, nor would I type, for a living. I applied, half-heartedly, at banks and the telephone company for jobs; I married, foolishly, a dear friend who shared a love of reading and a propensity for partying. When the Pelletters (Mr. and Mrs. P) called to say they had a full-time opening at the Book Nook, I jumped at it. The retail pay was offset by the ability to feed my reading habit for free.
The Book Nook was in the strip mall that rode the line between my small industrial city and the college town next door. It was the only bookstore in either town, and if they didn’t have the book you wanted, they’d sure do their best to get you a copy. It was, pretty much, the center store in the plaza. On its sign, underneath The Book Nook, these words were emblazoned: Browsers Welcome.
The work at the store was light and fine; we sorted Hallmark cards, made sure the envelopes matched the greetings,–made sure, too, that there were always three cards in their appointed slots. We inventoried shelves and toted books out from the back room on a library cart. We dusted and straightened. But most of all we provided smart, polite, enthusiastic service. A customer who came in and wanted to know about a book could count on finding one of us who’d read it.
There were rich, deep conversations about books with customers, and when there were no customers,–or the ones in the store were taking the sign at face value and browsing–we clerks had rich, deep conversations among ourselves. We debated the merits of books as we ran feather dusters up and down the New Books shelves, as we organized the pompom magnets that were all the rage with teens (and hence, often a disaster area), and as we bobbed and wove, feeding the card racks that ran the center of the store.
At that time, the whole staff was female, and each woman had her own particular taste, ranging from romance to biography, from mystery to confessional, and from classics to tell-alls. My colleagues’ recommendations broadened my horizons; set free from the proscribed reading lists an English degree mandates, I gloried in the ability to chose books just because they sounded interesting.
That was about the time I vowed to read only female authors, not wanting to patronize the voices of the patriarchy. It was a good time to read women writing; it was, maybe, the last time in my life that reading could be a priority and not a guilty pleasure squeezed in at the end of the day when all the other work and obligations had been tended to. In the Book Nook days, I would grab a book and sit and read, say, at 2:30 in the afternoon, if I wasn’t working. I had no homework. I had no children. My little apartment allowed me to stay on top of housework.
I had time to read, deeply and completely, and that year I discovered books that touched me, core deep. I read Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, and I exploded in recognition. French articulated emotions that swirled in my gut; she gave words to the things I sensed were injust, intolerable, unsustainable. I ate up Mira’s story, loved her friends, visualized the soaring ceilings and tacky furniture of their Harvard housing. Val’s words engraved themselves in my consciousness–“Splat! Splat! Splat!”
I read Mary Gordon’s Final Payments, that lovely, bizarre book that talked of the legacy of growing up Catholic and female in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the slogging, sucking pullback of a lifestyle that was drenched with spiritual guilt. I savored and saved images Gordon created–the silver bowl filled with holly, the boyfriend’s bookmarks–hairs he pulled from his ears and stuck in the book at poignant passages.
And I read Gail Godwin’s Violet Clay. Violet was a promising artist at a turning point, battered by her ex-lover’s derision, when the death of her uncle made her examine her life. Godwin’s work is rooted in her North Carolina culture, but there was so much about Violet to recognize.
These books gave me words, they opened doors, they posed questions I hadn’t quite been able to formulate. It would not be too large to say that the reading changed me, steered me in a different direction.
I read more of French’s work; it was good but not the revelation The Women’s Room had been. Gordon, too–Final Payments had struck so completely where I lived that her other books, by nature, had to miss that mark. But Godwin’s work seemed to me to get better and better.
Of course, the perfect job had to end. So did that early marriage, and I went on, after all, to teach…and ironically, to type exams for extra money–the very tasks I vowed never to perform. But in teaching I found a real calling; it has informed my life, in one way or another, for the next 30 plus years.
A new marriage and new work brought an instant family, a longer commute, papers to grade, meals to fix, the sense that there was always something undone. I don’t think I ever again abandoned myself to a book the way I had to Violet Clay, entering completely into the world created by an author. But I read, and loved, A Mother and Two Daughters. I read The Finishing School and A Southern Family; I loved the way Godwin created the characters and the ties that bound them together.
Many years after I borrowed Father Melancholy’s Daughter from the library; I had to push to finish it, feeling its loneliness and distress and a pervasive sense of abandonment.
And then more years went by, until this one, when I found Godwin’s Evensong on a clearance rack and brought it home.
Evensong is satisfying because it continues the story of Margaret Bonner–who was, indeed, Father Melancholy’s daughter; it shows her with a life rich in friendship and obligation, chest-deep in relationship confusion, immersed in her calling as an Episcopalian priest, and married to an older man much like her father. I enjoyed Evensong; I liked the intimate peek into the life of a female cleric. What would it be like to live a life where prayer is both personal and professional necessity? What would it be like to be the person to whom people turn in times of shock and sorrow, to be the person called upon to read the rites of joy?
I enjoyed remembering characters from other Godwin books and seeing them here, their stories grown and fleshed out, their repertories expanded. But I didn’t fall into Margaret’s world as I once fell into Violet’s–maybe because it’s a different time, and maybe because there’s thirty years worth of clutter in my head. Maybe, too, Godwin was revisiting characters and settings and relying on me to bring previous knowledge to my reading.
I enjoyed Evensong. I was not immersed in it. But. I have questions, and I hope they’re answered in another Godwin book. What about Ben, I want to know? What about Margaret and Adrian’s child? What happens to Jennifer? Do Gus and Charles have a long and happy life together?
The questions send me to the Internet, to Godwin’s webpage, and I find a trove of books she’s written. I get out my to-read list and I write down titles. How did I miss the early works? And wouldn’t it be fun to read the memoirs and compare them to her fiction?
I may never again have the total concentration, the ability to inhabit a book, that I had when I was 23, but Gail Godwin’s work still calls to me. I will watch for her books in my book-buying rambles. I will, of course, devote myself to the books already on my shelves, but now ‘catching up with Godwin’ is a literary quest.
I look forward to another perfect job–or what I hope, at least, will be a darned near perfect condition: retirement, and maybe the ability to, without guilt, grab a book and read mid-day. By the time that arrives, in the not so faraway future, I hope to have my shelved books read, and be deep into my Godwin quest.
This week, though, with temperatures warming and sunshine and green grass luring me outside, I can’t resist a book I have saved for along, long time: Jane Leavy’s The Last Boy. Time to read about a hero from my very young days, growing up in New York State. I’m spending some time with Mickey Mantle this weekend.
I hope your week is great.