Last week, while casting about for a stack of books to place on the nightstand of our guest room, my wife randomly reached for titles on our shelves and landed on “Fictions,” an anthology of short stories she’d acquired for a college lit class nearly 30 years ago.
The book had probably sat unopened in our bookcase for decades while we tended to life’s usual urgencies – parenthood, careers, feeding the dog or doing the laundry.
My wife’s eyes widened and her face brightened as she casually opened “Fictions” and discovered so much treasure inside – stories by Sherwood Anderson and Franz Kafka, Joyce Carol Oates and D.H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, John Cheever, dozens of others.
She couldn’t believe her good fortune, and the book now rests on her nightstand, a windfall of autumn reading now rediscovered, like a $20 bill in last winter’s coat.
It was a moment of gratitude for a book long owned, a form of appreciation that we bibliophiles too seldom express. We are, after all, always focused on the Next Big Thing – the newest novel, memoir or massive work of history from our favorite authors.
That’s the kind of expectation that keeps literary culture alive and growing, but it comes with a cost. Too often, we neglect the books we already have.
And so, as another Thanksgiving arrives, try this simple exercise. On Thanksgiving Day, after the dishes are cleared, scan your own home library and remind yourself how lucky you are to have so much great writing at your fingertips. Here at the start of a holiday shopping season that will be nudging us to buy even more books, take a moment to notice what the world’s scribes have already given you. Pull a few favorites from the shelf, and give thanks for all those wonderful sentences, those lines of verse, those stories only a writer could craft.
I did my own home library survey recently, and here are five gems I found. You, no doubt, will find your own.
1) “But Enough About You: Essays” by Christopher Buckley. This 2014 collection shows Buckley at his best, musing on everything from “The Origin and Development of the Lobster Bib” to “How to Write Witty Email.” Charming, funny stuff – a great diversion for a holiday afternoon.
2) “Sightlines: A Conversation with the Natural World” by Kathleen Jamie. Closely observed, poetical essays on land and sea from Scotland’s premier naturalist. She combines Virginia Woolf’s acute vision with Annie Dillard’s offbeat sensibility.
3) “The Art of Stilness” by Pico Iyer. In a tiny book that can be read in a single sitting, journalist Iyer reflects on how we can find peace and quiet in an increasingly hurried world. What better antidote to the rush of the holidays?
4) “One Summer: America, 1927” by Bill Bryson. A master humorist and memoirist, Bryson also proves himself a masterful popular historian in this colorful survey of a pivotal season in the life of America. It’s worth reading – and, as I’m reminded now -- rereading.
5) “On Elizabeth Bishop” by Colm Toibin. In a brief book, also easily tackled on a holiday weekend, novelist Toibin describes how Bishop’s magical poetry shaped his own way of seeing and writing. It’s sent me back to Bishop’s poems, also on my shelf. How lucky am I to have all these books?