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January 1, 2006

Dear Readers,

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 you."

Copyright © 2006 by Stephenie Meyer

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 to trust?

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 enthusiasm.

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.