Taking a Literary Tumble


I had been doing pretty well, really, with my resolve not to buy or borrow more books until I’d read the ones on my shelves.

It was a winter of acquisition: we discovered some really good used book sales at libraries and in communities. The campus library began a long purge and almost every Thursday an email would arrive, saying, “Come and help yourself to remaindered English literature books!” or “Come build a stack of fairy tales and folk lore!”

So, several times I brought home hefty bags full of books that looked fascinating, and during winter’s cold months, I read some Willa Cather and some Adela Winters St. John, read some British novelists from the early 1900’s, and cleansed my palate with some children’s books and memoirs. The unread books went from being a tottering tower to a sturdy stack.

Then we started a small discussion group at work to talk about Hillbilly Elegy, and one of the participants told me I really needed to read a book called White Trash as a companion piece to JD Vance’s discussion of growing up Scots Irish in Appalachian Ohio and Kentucky.

That sounded interesting, and I’d heard other people mention White Trash as a portal into a worthy point of view. I found it in the local library’s electronic catalog, and I placed a hold. Then I also placed a hold on a book by David Sheff called Clean. Sheff is our community read speaker this year; he also wrote Beautiful Boy,  a frank and poignant memoir of his son Nic’s battle with addiction.

So one day, I took my son Jim to the library and picked up the two books. And while Jim wandered through the stacks of DVD’s, I remembered that I had always wanted to read Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk; a quick search showed me that was on the shelf, ripe for the picking. And I remembered, too, that I had been meaning to read Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool. I read Nobody’s Fool last summer; then we tracked down the film, which we watched as a family and universally loved. Everybody’s Fool was a widely sought new book at the time; I think there were 27 holds ahead of me when I looked it up on the library site.

“I’ll wait till that dies down,” I thought, and now it was on the shelf.

I also found The Bertie Project, one of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series, on the new book shelves. I love the concept of those books–written in installments for a Scottish newspaper–and I love the slightly surreal events that take place therein.

And I found a book about a grown daughter who returned home, after years away, to live near her mother, and who got involved with her mother’s bridge club. That was called The Bridge Ladies, it was by Betsy Lerner, and something about it just called to me.

Suddenly I had been to the checkout station and was toting home a bagful of six books, and I realized that I had taken a pretty good topple off my resolve not to borrow books until the home books were read.

Ah, well, I thought. If I’m going to fall, I might as well fall BIG.


My mama always told me that if I commit to a book, unless it’s just trashy, unless it’s values are so distasteful they make me shudder, I had to see it through.  So I started with Bertie–the 44 Scotland Street series is light and funny, poignant and disturbing, but quick to read. And this one was a little more serious–this one had Bertie’s dad contemplating an extramarital relationship that might just rock the entire family apart. Bertie’s mother is one of the most enjoyably antagonistic characters I have found–it’s so much fun to despise her,–but the possibility of Stuart straying made the light-hearted book series suddenly serious.

The Bridge Ladies broke my heart. I thought it was a book my mother would have enjoyed. I was glad when the author broke through to a greater appreciation of her own mother through her forays into bridge. And, having just recently read Kay Redfield’s Jamison’s textured biography of Robert Lowell’s mental illness, I was rocked to read the author’s casual admission, embedded in a chapter, that she has bipolar disease. It made me think about creativity and ‘craziness,’ and the knife’s edge that some of us have to walk.

Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk was lyrical and foreign in some ways–I cannot imagine cohabiting with a goshawk, or snapping the necks of bunnies as part of training one. But other themes were very familiar and very real–the depth of loss and the effort not to flounder after the death of a beloved parent. The embarrassed slog through viscous depression. And McDonald’s writing is unique and intelligent and challenging. “The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away,” she writes, and I, not wanting to ever be that close to a bird of prey (much less its evening munchies), I get it.

I am starting now on Everybody’s Fool, surprised that our opening viewpoint is provided by Douglas Raymer, now Bath’s chief of police, but once the hapless patrolman who shot at Sully when he refused to stop driving his pick-up on the sidewalk. Raymer arrives at the interment of Judge Barton Flatt, the curmudgeon-y small town justice who sympathized with Sully and made Raymer’s life hell.

This, I can tell, is going to get interesting.


And I am thinking I need a plan and a schedule for reading Clean and White Trash, both books I’d put more in the ‘learning and reference’ mode than in the recreational reading variety. I need to dust off my scholarly habits. I am thinking I may read a chapter of one each morning, of the other just before dinner each night.

My days are like bricks chinked together with books. And that is very much okay.


So, I’m on the last of my recreational library books; when it is finished, I’ll find a new bedtime story from among the rich variety of books on my shelf. And I’ll read through my ‘learning’ books,–read with a pad and a pen, taking notes, making connections, typing thoughts to send to people I connect with on these topics and in these ways.

The books on my shelves wait for me, kindly; they understand that new books arrive and demand attention, that initiatives and events call for outside reading.  And the ‘visitor’ books–those library emissaries–open new doors in my mind, leave me imagining new pictures.  I can close my eyes and there, I see, is the goshawk flying, trim to the English meadow-ground; I imagine the preciseness and the devastation of its kill.

I know a little bit about bridge now, and its terminology–enough to be conversant but not dangerous.

It was a good topple, this fall into library tomes; it was a palate-cleansing, interest-piquing tumble. I slowed down and concentrated on each of the visitor books, and I enjoyed--am enjoying–their very different voices and tones and spirits.  I am learning, as I explore, a lot.

And I am ready, again, to engage with the books on my shelves, to meet authors long gone and titles long forgotten.

I will pick up that thread; I will honor my commitment to the books on my shelves. But I am energized and renewed by my trip to the library and by reading the books I couldn’t help but bring home.


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