Summer Reading 2015: What a long strange trip it’s been

Sitting at a bar in Oxford, Mississippi, I asked a man, “Would you fight for your life if you were one of the last people on earth?” Follow-up questions included: “What if you had one of our kids in tow?” and “If you didn’t have one of our kids in tow, what would you even be fighting for?”

To be fair, this man is my husband of lo, these past 25 years. So these were fair questions. (After 25 years, I figure anything is a fair question.) I’m not entirely sure I got satisfactory answers. I was competing with ESPN on about a half-dozen TVs.

A few days later, driving into a grocery store parking lot, he eyed a woman walking from her car toward the front entrance and asked, “What would you do if she were completely naked, pushing that cart?”

So we are always full of questions. And, occasionally, some sound answers. (As for the naked shopper, I like to think I would just let her go about her business. But we all know I would call 911.)

While I cannot determine the basis of the naked shopper question, my series of questions at the bar stemmed from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (cue the “Debbie Downer” jingle). It was but one in a long list of books that made up Amy’s Summer Reading List 2015. My formula was to read three books each week, alternating between fiction and non-fiction. And nothing was off limits. As The Grateful Dead would put it, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”

Favorite Autobiography: So That Happened by Jon Cryer

Favorite Fiction: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Fastest Read: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Favorite Modern Classic: White Noise by Don Delillo

A Little Embarrassed To Be Seen Reading Poolside: Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying) by Bill Gifford (note: The nice folks at the library glued the non-removable book jacket upside down. I like to think that is the work of a librarian with a sense of humor.)

I opened with the Oxford, Mississippi story because Nick Hornby opens up Shakespeare Wrote for Money with an anecdote about Oxford, Mississippi. The “so what” here is that Hornby lives in North London, so we can all agree that he probably knows a good American literary spot when he visits one.

It wasn’t until last week that I read Hornby’s book, which is a compilation of his last round of columns for The Believer, and the formula for the column was pretty simple: “Books Bought/Books Read.” So there is a list, then there are explorations of those he read. If I believed in text talk at all, I would tell you that I LOL’d all over the place.

Yes, these are, at their core, book reviews, but don’t let that scare you. They read more like personal narratives. So very brilliant. Within one of his columns, he offers a pithy idea of a “book nutritionist” who tells people what to read. (The book is in another room, so I am working off memory here because I don’t feel like getting out of this chair.) It is almost a passing description, but it stuck in my brain for whatever reason and gave me all sorts of ideas that no one will ever follow through with, but here is one of them anyway.

Food nutritionists have forever recommended that we write down everything we eat in a given day. Such a practice reveals patterns and problems and can lead to some level of accountability. And shame. I propose taking Hornby’s fun little appellation a little further, borrow the advice from nutritional science, and encourage folks to write down everything they read in a day. If at the end of the day all you have recorded is “Facebook posts” and “street signs,” you may determine there is room in your life to read other material.

What would happen if we did this? How much lying would we engage in? How much cheating? Do Tweets count? How about al.com? What about Instagram captions? Who’s in charge here?

What a snotty little idea, you might be saying. Yeah, well, whatever. You’ve read this far, so put that in your reading log. You’re off to a good start.

Shut up and read

Harper Lee could have written What I Ate Today, and we would be scampering to the nearest bookstore to get our hands on a hardback copy. Lee has a knack for doing this to us.

She is two for two.

Go Set a Watchman was a rough draft that underwent more than two years of revision and editing so severe that the entire plot had to be rewound 20something years in order for a younger Scout, a more tolerant Atticus, and To Kill a Mockingbird even to come to life. (Pay attention here, composition students: Revision is always a good idea.)

I boarded the Harper Lee train like the rest of America and pre-ordered a copy, knowing good and well there would be no shortage of copies today, which is the much anticipated release date that has made an entire country temporarily forget about ISIS, Donald Trump, and the Confederate flag gay marriage.

Here’s why: reclusiveness is attractive. Not attractive in the physically appealing, romantic sense, but in the curious, mysterious sense. Harper Lee has exhibited a reclusiveness so acute that she makes Emily Dickinson seem like a Kardashian. This is why we love her. This is why everyone in the South claims TKAM to be their favorite book of all time and why everyone outside the South claims their hometown really is Southern, even if not geographically, or declares herself a history buff or has had an incurable crush on Gregory Peck or whatever it is that Katie Couric went on and on about last week that somehow qualified her as a TKAM expert. But this is not my point.

My point is that much of TKAM’s 55-year appeal, which has clearly transferred to Go Set a Watchman, is Harper Lee’s self-imposed exile from the public eye. We love that stuff. When a famous person decides, “That’s it, I’ve done something pretty cool here, and now I’m going inside for the next 55 years,” we line up on the sidewalk and wait for a shadow in the window while we rummage through her trash.

The Austin Phelps quote, “Wear the old coat, and buy the new book” hangs above my desk. It serves not as a reminder that I should accumulate books and books and books like a person with a disorder, but as a reminder that some things last and others do not. Books themselves do not last—I know that. I’m not an idiot, usually. But what we take from them certainly does. And while that sounds awfully poetic and preachy, well … whatever. TKAM lasts.

While riding that previously mentioned Harper Lee train on the eve of today’s release, I sat at the popular kids’ table to read TKAM along with everyone else because that’s what the media suggested we should do: read or reread the novel on Monday. The problem was, I couldn’t find my copy anywhere. Some kid who lives here has misplaced it. But after the yelling and the unshelving and the accusing, I realized, “Why do I need to read this again anyway?” A conservative estimate is that I have read TKAM 27 times in this life, beginning in sixth grade, and I have seen the movie at least twice that number. I sort of know the story. So I went to bed and waited for the prequel.

If Watchman poses any threat of undoing everything we know and love about Atticus, Jem, Scout or any other character, then we have ourselves to blame. We approach a story with our own experiences, our own views, our own assumptions, and we block out the nice folks on TV who are hell bent on telling us why this is good or bad or why the author did this or that. We hold on to the innocence and imagination of TKAM and whatever it is that draws us to this story, and we take the best next step, which is to shut up and read.

I like to believe Harper Lee would say the same thing.

Valentine’s Day field trip idea: a girl and a boy go to a movie

See that previous post about how the new year held all sorts of promise for rehabilitating this wheezing excuse for a blog? Clearly, words don’t mean much in 2014.

In fact, until this very morning, the header image remained a vintage sepia photo of two Auburn men holding a golden eagle by its wings. This was no accident; a cool picture deserves to stay in public view for more than a month, especially in a region where football season never ends. But I have to tell you, it was time. It was time for football season to end, it was time for recruiting season to end, it was (and is) time to Move. On. In these parts (and in this household), I think I may have just engaged in some level of blasphemy. Regardless, that particular picture has been removed, and a creepy Valentine image has taken its place.

Despite the rapid approach of Valentine’s Day, the real focus today is the weather and how, frankly, we need to push past this prolonged state of wait-and-see and upended schedules that February has dumped on us. This isn’t healthy. It can’t be.

Recognizing that the residents of this house were in real danger of re-enacting scenes from The Shining, we loaded up the four-wheel-drive–it was raining, after all–Tuesday night to take in a movie. Agreeing on a movie is akin to hosting a NATO summit. All the strategies and alliances, reviews and debates. It’s exhausting, really. (If NATO summits can be won and lost, I certainly lost the last round and was forced to suffer through American Hustle. I was not about to lose again.) Continue reading