Thursday, December 06, 2007


I decided to make a list of all the books I’ve ever read. This is an impossible project because I don’t remember all the books I’ve ever read. I have a number of old journals listing books I read through the years, but they aren’t complete. I don’t remember all the books I read in college, for example. Some of my journals with book lists at the back were burned in a fire when I was 24, along with more than 500 books. I also lost some journals when I moved. I regret losing the journals more than the lists, but my master list project twists the knife.

One of the most interesting things about making this impossible list is how books are a part of your biography. Beyond the book - what you thought about it, how it made you feel – is how it’s often associated with a certain period of your life – what you were doing when you read it, how old you were, where you read it, the personal circumstances.

I read Tess of the D’urbervilles on my first trip to England when I was 20. In fact, I hadn’t really wanted to read it. I packed as a way to force myself. But the fascinating thing was, as I read it, I was steeped in the English countryside, walking through fields, driving past farms and hills, conjuring the characters into settings which were natural for the Durbyfields. Reading any book can be a way of inhabiting a parallel existence, but that was for me uncanny.

I read The Collected Works of Billy the Kid on a lone trip I took to New Mexico, and the experience of being blown away by that book for me is deeply connected to being blown away by the southwest. That is still one of my favorite all-time books.

I read Jude the Obscure, my favorite Hardy, poolside in the Alps. I got to the part where Jude’s son kills himself and the other children “because there were too many” while Carlo was horsing around with our kids in the pool. We were the only ones there and I remember being annoyed at how loud they were when I had a tragic murder-suicide on my hands. But part of my agitation also came from having two small children myself, and being pained and horrified.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I spent the last month or so holed up in bed reading Russian novels: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Master and Margarita and Dr. Zhivago. In my mind this is a defined leg of my life characterized by my bulk and unwieldiness and by tundra and taiga and very cold weather, although it was May in Germany.

When I read the Tao Te Ching almost 25 years ago, I loved it so much, I took pictures of it. It seems silly now, but I have a picture of it in the woods, by a stream and laid across a lampshade, stemming the light. These are in a photo album, as if the Tao te Ching were a relative or boyfriend. Actually, I soon found Chuang Tzu to be a much better book, and in fact the copy I have of it is much handsomer than my volume of Tao Te Ching, but I’ve never taken a picture of it.

If you want to read my list-in-progress it’s over at Good Reads.

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