At this moment, I can’t think of anything more luxurious than sitting down to read a book a day for an entire year. Can you imagine waking up each morning with the goal of finishing a book, and having that goal be the driving motivation of your day? Amazing.
The idea has been in my head since Sunday when I finished reading Nina Sankovitch’s memoir Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, which is about her project to read 365 books in 365 days. This project wasn’t just for kicks: after her sister, Anne-Marie, passed away after a short illness at 46, Sankovitch found herself split apart — one part stuck back in the hospital room with her sister and one part rushing forward, trying to live as much as possible as a way to make Anne-Marie’s death mean something. As a way to center herself, to find a way back to actually living, Sankovitch decided to spend a year in immersed in books, reading and reviewing a book every single day.
For a short book, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair gave me a lot to think about. Rather than just writing a chronicle of “my year in books,” Sankovitch uses her year of reading to explore what books mean to readers and how we use the greater truths that can be found through the written word to inform and live our own lives. The chapters are arrange thematically, and Sankovitch draws together books that seem to have nothing in common as she works through her year of reading.
One phenomenon Sankovitch explored was the idea of recommending books to others. As she started her “year of magical reading” — a great reference to Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking — Sankovitch found herself inundated with recommendations for books to read from other people. “Take this,” they’d say, “I think you’ll love it.” However, this brings about some complications:
People share books they love. They want to spread to friends and family the goodness that they felt when reading the book of the ideas they found in the pages. In sharing a loved book, a reader is trying to share the same excitement, pleasure, chills and thrills of reading that they themselves experienced. Why else share? Sharing a love of books and of one particular book is a good thing. But it is also a tricky maneuver, for both sides. The giver of the book is not exactly ripping open her soul for a free look, but when she hands over the book with the comment that it is one of her favorites, such an admission is very close to the baring of the soul. We are what we love to read, and when we admit to loving a book, we admit that the book represents some aspect of ourselves truly, whether it is that we are suckers for romance or pining for adventure or secretly fascinated by crime.
As a person who constantly recommends books — both online and to friends and family — I’m really curious about this idea. Does recommending books really have this much weight? Is a book recommendation really putting your soul out there for others to see?
Sometimes, most certainly. One of my favorite nonfiction books is The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. I unabashedly love that book, and nearly always put it high on a list of books I want everyone to read. I think it’s stunning. When a couple of my favorite bloggers picked it up earlier this year, I was really nervous… What if they didn’t like it? What if they thought it was terrible? Would their opinion of me and my reading tastes change? Would they suddenly stop reading my blog and shun me to the far corners of the Interwebs?
Thankfully, no, but clearly there’s some anxiety in recommending a book that I have such a personal and deep stake in.
On the other hand, I’m not usually anxious when someone comes to me and asks for a book recommendation. I can share some books I’ve loved, but also suggest books I’ve read about they might enjoy. If the person doesn’t like any of the books, it’s not really a statement about me, I just misread their tastes. Plus, they asked, so take the advice with a grain of salt.
I also don’t feel a lot of anxiety when I post most reviews here on the blog. I suppose the difference is how much a book is loved — the more attached I am to it, the more anxious I feel about writing a review and putting myself out there as a cheerleader and champion for a story. And there’s also a sense of detachment; writing a review on the blog isn’t too anyone. I’m not taking a book and putting it in a friend’s hand and saying, “I loved this. I think you will too.” Doing that… that can be scary.
Sankovitch is right: We are what we love to read. The books I carry with me, that stay on my shelves from apartment to apartment are part of me. They’re books that say something about who I am and what I believe and how think about myself. And recommending any of those, of taking them off the shelf and handing them over… that’s a little scary. It’s my soul showing free, but I don’t think I’d have it any other way.
How personally do you take the idea of recommending a book to someone else? Do you find sharing books to be a personal thing, or just a question among friends? What would your shared books say about your deepest self?