January 1, 2006
I know only dweebs still make New Year's resolutions. I know it's
unfashionable, hopelessly retro, self-delusional. I know, I know,
I know. But I'm going to do it anyway. Because hope springs eternal.
And because I'm a dweeb.
For the new year, I resolve – yet again – to actually
read all the books I bought in the old year. I'm going to demolish
the stack on top of my night table and the one under it, too. I'm
going to get through the heap in my office. The pile on the stairs.
And the shelf – shelves – reserved for new
acquisitions in my library.
Exactly how I'm going to do this remains unclear. Maybe I can get
up earlier. Go to bed later. Or just learn to do without sleep altogether.
Happily, I've discovered that I'm not the only one who greedily
buys more books than she can possibly read in a lifetime, never
mind a year.
In his wonderful memoir My Life in the Middle Ages, James
Atlas, a past editor of The New York Times Book Review, and a staff
writer for The New Yorker and The Atlantic, confesses
just how bad his habit is. He's powerless in a Barnes and Noble,
succumbs without a struggle to The Common Reader, and,
like all hardened junkies, frequently buys from street dealers.
Far from repenting his addiction, all he wants is to score again:
“Like the drinker who treats his hangover with “the
hair of the dog," I assuage my anxiety about all the books
I've bought and not read by purchasing more. Somehow, I imagine
that if I buy a book I'll read it. Time will stop; the day will
mysteriously expand its number of hours. Suetonius's Lives of
the Poets will be absorbed by osmosis; Ben Franklin's Autobiography,
a slender volume, will – if it sits on the coffee table long
enough – feel as if I've read it. Here's a book I need, or
think I need: Giannozzo Manetti's Biographical Writings.
When it arrives in the mail, ordered from an advertisement in The
New York Review of Books, I open the package and discover that
the left-hand page is in Latin – which suddenly, to my advantage
now, I never learned to read. Which means it's only half as
long as I thought it was. Yes! A distinct possibility that
it will get read, that one."
Copyright © 2006 by James Atlas
My Life in the Middle Ages is a collection of essays on
what it feels like to be not young anymore, but not old, either.
Atlas writes with wit and heart about aging, family, death, love,
and literature, as well as his search for meaning, for God, and
for a tennis pro who can help him trounce his teenage son one last
time. I'm happy to say it's one book that has come out of my To
Read pile. I hope it makes it into yours.
It's nearly Christmas as I write this newsletter, so of course I'm
reading about vampires. I meant to read Twilight, a young
adult novel by Stephenie Meyer, at Halloween, but since I'm terminally
behind in everything I do, I'm now mixing egg nog and nosferatu.
Twilight is a wonderfully offbeat story about a girl named
Bella Swan – who's just moved to the gloomy town of Forks
in Washington State – and the boy she falls in love with –
Edward Cullen…who happens to be one of the undead. Edward
is the Ralph Fiennes of vampires – tortured, brooding, devastatingly
handsome. He hates bloodshed and loves fast cars and classical music.
He also loves Bella.
But there's a problem – a kiss from a vampire can leave a
girl with a lot more than a hickey. Edward fights his attraction
to Bella, taking every opportunity to be surly and snarly, but frank,
feisty Bella isn't easily put off. And who can blame her? Edward
is no Hollywood-variety vampire. There are no musty coffins in his
closet, no bats or rats or stinky dead things. He doesn't shrivel
in the sun, he sparkles:
“Edward in the sunlight was shocking. I couldn't get used
to it, though I'd been staring at him all afternoon. His skin, white
despite the faint flush from yesterday's hunting trip, literally
sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface.
He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted,
incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare. His glistening,
pale lavender lids were shut, though of course he didn't sleep.
A perfect statute, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble,
glittering like crystal...I lightly trailed my hand over the perfect
muscles of his arm, followed the faint pattern of bluish veins inside
the crease at his elbow. With my other hand, I reached to turn his
hand over. Realized what I wished, he flipped his palm up in one
of those blindingly fast, disconcerting movements of his. It startled
me; my fingers froze on his arm for a brief second.
“Sorry," he murmured. I looked up in time to see his
golden eyes close again. “It's too easy to be myself with
Copyright © 2006 by Stephenie
The attraction between Bella and Edward – and the tension
– is crackling and real. Meyer cleverly mirrors the push/pull
dynamic of real teenage romances, raising many of the questions
that attend first love: How close is too close? What are the consequences
of love? Of sex? Is it safe to reveal one's hidden self? Is it safe
If you've had enough of Frosty and the gang by now, and are in the
mood for something darker, give Twilight a try. It's a scary, suspenseful
read and a wonderful love story, too.
Though Daisy's a bit young to be listening to tales of middle-age
angst or vampire stories, she is dipping her tiny toes into the
Brothers Grimm and C.S. Lewis. And she's loving them. We've read Snow White and Cinderella – the kinder, gentler Disney
versions – she is only two, after all – and a picture
book telling of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I
can see that as she grows, she's beginning to hunger for stories.
Real stories. With brave beginnings, middles stuffed full of drama
and conflict, and triumphant endings.
I love the way she completely throws herself into the stories we
read – gasping when the witch hands Snow White the apple,
cheering when the handsome prince shows up and saves the day. She
connects with stories so fiercely. With passion, emotion and wild
How I envy her that.
I remember it so well – that ability to give oneself over
completely to magical lions, white witches, godmothers and glass
slippers. But I experience it so rarely now. So much gets in the
way. Deadlines, bills, dinner, the dog. It's hard to find the way
back to the magical lands that lie on the other side of the wardrobe
once you've grown up, but little children still know the way, and
if you're lucky, they might just take you there again.
So now that I think about it, I guess what I'm really resolving
to do in the new year is not to diminish my pile of unread books
– deep down inside I know that's never going to happen –
but to make more time for them. And to read the way my daughter
does – like a queen exercising a royal right, tolerating no
distractions, no disturbances, no heresies of disbelief.
James Atlas puts it nicely:
“Childhood was the Golden Age of Reading. At ten, I would
check out the works of John R. Tunis or Walter R. Brooks's Freddy
the Pig series under the vigilant direction of Miss Boyè,
the children's librarian of our public library, and bicycle home
with a bulging knapsack of books strapped to my back, so top-heavy
that it made my Schwinn teeter.
I loved the total absorption in a private world, a world sealed
off from the so-called real world, in which people got sick and
lost jobs, parents fought at the dinner table, bills had to be paid.
Seated cross-legged on the floor, head bowed as if in prayer, I
was beyond distraction: sirens, doorbells, calls to supper went
unheeded and unheard. It was as if life itself was merely a medium,
like air, that enabled literature to thrive. “I can always
tell when you're reading somewhere in the house," Francis Spufford
recalls his mother saying in his charming bildungsroman of bibliophilia, The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading: “There's
a special silence, a reading silence."
Copyright © 2006 by James Atlas
Wishing you a very happy new year, one filled with good books and
all the time in the world to read them.