Flannery O’Connor’s story, Everything that Rises Must Converge: the scene on the bus when the white woman condescendingly slips a penny to the young African American boy and his mother smacks the white woman across the face with her purse.
The Color Purple, when Celie has sex with Shug for the first time and experiences what it is to be made love to.
At the end of The Cathedral, a short story by Raymond Carver, when the blind man asks the narrator whose house he’s visiting, to draw a cathedral and the blind man places his hand on the drawing man’s hand as he tries to show him what a cathedral looks like.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie is described for the first time as a young African American woman walking down a dirt road into town, wearing overalls, her long hair swinging like a rope down her back.
Anna Karenina’s opening line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Images from books I have loved. But there are so many more. A few weeks back I said I wished I’d kept a running tab of every movie I had ever seen, I wish I had done the same with books—I think the Glass brothers do this in one of Salinger’s 9 stories.
As you start to think back on books and authors, you begin to remember more.
Moving through one’s literary memory is like running through a towering mansion, past open doors of endless beautiful rooms. You want to stop and enter them all. And when I say beautiful, I don’t mean pretty—many of my favorite books are terrifying, tragic.
Hanna Yanagahira’s A Little Life kept me up nights for a week and when I finished the last line I exploded in tears. My first Thanksgiving in New York City I spent by myself except for Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. A book so enraging and sad, it sorta reminded me of holidays with the family.
I grew up in a reading family. Something that often happens when I talk to my mom, if I reference a book she’ll say, “Oh, yeah, I think I read that.” She loves fiction.
Non fiction was more my dad’s style. American History with a particular love of the Civil War. In their garage are shelves and shelves with hundreds of old books, on the battle of Gettysburg, the life of Ulysses S. Grant and several about my dad’s hero, Abraham Lincoln.
“I need to find someone to buy dad’s civil war books.” Mom will say. This always hangs in the air between us. I love books, I do, and reading has given my life one of its greatest pleasures, and such meaning. I just don’t think anyone wants my dad’s random collection of books on the civil war. No one wants old books it seems.
When we lived in Manhattan, Bobby and I had a rule. No books. We just didn’t have the space. A book brought into the apartment meant a loss of a fairly significant slice of real estate. This rule was a betrayal of a life spent collecting books. I always imagined someday I would have a library with books from all the different times of my life. A couple of years ago, I went through all of the boxes of books in my parent’s attic and I took them to a second hand bookstore in Hollywood and sold them all. There’s a slight ping of pain when I write this—why did I do that? But the greater sense is one of freedom. I hardly ever re-read books so what is their purpose? I still read a lot but now I read on a device, which scandalizes certain people. When the printing press was invented, were there people who insisted on sticking with illuminated manuscripts. And don’t get me wrong, I love books—my day job for 15 years was working in bookstore, I love the feel, the small, flipping through the pages. And yet, something has shifted.
Some cultural shifts are subtle, some are sudden, dramatic. Surely the one we’re experiencing right now is the latter—entire ways of life will be lost in the aftermath of this crisis, things that used to matter won’t anymore, or won’t be able to matter. Already people are moving to different states, getting rid of their houses, selling old china.
I read every night before I go to sleep. I have done this for as long as I can remember. Right now I’m reading the Mirror and the Light, the third book in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell.
One of the remarkable about these books is that when they take place, the plague was ever present. It would go away in this town and then spring up over there, it would leave for a year then return for three more. And this went on for hundreds of years.
The ability to enter another time and place, to step into someone else’s story. This isn’t escaping, it’s moving through the pages, with the burning quest for answers. Looking for perspective, which now more than ever is the thing I want most.