February 2011

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book edited by Sean Manning

I received the collection Bound to Last with the expectation that it would speak to me as a book lover, launch a few salvos in the continuous e-book versus printed book war, and be a pleasant and possibly diversionary read. What I found was an anthology that is certainly about love of reading, but more than that, it is about the appeal of specific books as objects of sentiment that speak to their owners for reasons transcending the stories they contain. What the thirty writers are saying in these essays is that they need the tangible objects they profile for very personal and powerful reasons, and downloading the titles on a Kindle doesn’t come close to satisfying that need.

Starting with Ray Bradbury’s introduction and homage to his Aunt Neva’s gift of Edgar Allan Poe, readers hear from writers across the literary spectrum on titles that range from a Dungeons and Dragons manual to The Bible. But don’t think for a minute that you know what these writers are going to share. Perhaps the most surprising for me was Joyce Maynard’s mournful recollection of her father’s Bible -- the book she does not have and has missed for decades.

I could have purchased my own Bible of course. It is never difficult to find a copy of the King James edition. There’s been one in nearly every hotel room I’ve ever spent a night in. But it wasn’t simply the Bible I wanted. It was my father’s voice, speaking to me, his only Chum, from those oft-thumbed pages, and offering up his vision of what mattered in this life - as he had all those years when I’d taken his voice so for granted, and, too often, registered only impatience and annoyance with what he said.

And here I am. Close to three decades have passed since my father died, but he remains a daily presence, and only in part because the walls of the house I live in are covered with the art he made. In my fifties now, I wonder: Which were the psalms he loved best? Which disciples? What were the stories he underlined, and the comments he would have written beside them in the margins in his fine, elegant artist’s hand?

We all know how easy it is to find a copy of the Bible, and we all, who have lost someone we loved, know how much we long for something they touched, they felt, that mattered to them. This is editor Sean Manning’s point, and something that all of his contributors brought to the anthology -- reading is a wonderful thing, but the books that possess us or the people we loved, they matter more than than we could have expected.

Here is Anthony Swofford on the edition of The Stranger he carried with him in the Persian Gulf:

For me, forever, this beaten-up copy I dragged around in my rucksack for nine months will always be a badge of my awakening as a writer. I’d wanted to be a writer since my teens, since discovering Camus and Hemingway and Steinbeck, all of the male writers who make hot-blooded American boys want to become writers. But I’d never been tested, intellectually or physically or morally. At war I was tested everyday… That battered copy of The Stranger that I carried around the desert was an integral part of my writer’s education.

The book is a talisman, a reminder of a place and time that affected Swofford indelibly. He reaches for it now, as “a reminder of a youthful angst and hatred that are fashionable when young but that wear out as one ages.”

Consider J. Courtney Sullivan writes about The Viking Portable Dorothy Parker she was given on her sixteenth birthday:

For a certain kind of girl, Dorothy Parker is the human expression of wit and spunk and strength and rebellion. The same way generations of new kids are always discovering the music of Kurt Cobain -- thinking they’re the first, or if not, then at least the ones who truly understand it most -- girls like me discovered her. In doing so I imagined another life for myself.

Sullivan took Parker with her to college, and then onto New York, and as she writes, “The book has come to mean more to me than even the sum of its contents.” It is the book that shares not only who Parker was but who Sullivan hoped to be. And it is because of how much it represents to her that she has not let it go. Her teenage self resides still between those covers and it still speaks to her and so when she touches it, she continues that long held conversation.

That notion of past conversations resonates most strongly in Karen Green’s essay about The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. This was the book she turned to in the wake of her husband’s suicide. Becoming the widow of David Foster Wallace is something Green writes about almost as a victim of shell shock. “Books can be helpful,” she writes, “after an Incident.” But as much as Green returns to Hempel, she also writes about Wallace and the difficulty of sorting through her husband’s beloved, and much annotated, books:

After David died, I had a legal obligation to examine each book in order to determine its archival value. Instead, I found myself looking for secret messages in the margins, something that would grant me the equation of reversal, or the equation of acceptance. Mercifully I had a helper, also obligated, who was slightly less unhinged.

Anyone can see her there, and see also how his books, marked by his hand, would be both a burden and gift. And Green would understand Joyce Maynard’s pain over not having this moment to both cling to and abhor.

I could go on and on. Every page leads the reader into another intimate moment, into funny reminiscences, heartfelt recollections and more touching tributes. Few authors directly address the notion of e-books, but the message is clear regardless. Victoria Patterson does consider though the physical act of reading that so many of us cherish:

On a screen, I don’t get the sense of accumulation that I do with a physical book: the weight of the pages moving from my right hand to my left hand, a history building and adding on itself. On a screen, pages disappear. For me, e-books are like ghosts of books. They’re not there.

Of if you prefer, Chris Abani discovered this when searching for a copy of James Baldwin’s Another Country to supplement his copy which is falling apart:

I have decided to buy another copy, to tide me over the next twenty years, but I cannot imagine this one being replaced by another paper copy, so I spent hours chasing down an electronic copy to download to my iPad.

I am unable however to find one -- not on Google Books, or Project Gutenberg or even on Amazon’s Kindle shop.

This makes me sad and extremely happy.

Whether you embrace the notion of hard copy over e-book or not, this is a book for the reader. It is a collection of extremely well-written personal essays by very smart people who love books. It celebrates the act of reading, the impact books can have on our lives and the long reach that words carry. For myself, I reacted to Bound to Last in a very personal way; as I was reading it, I recalled my dearly beloved great-uncle’s recent death and the copy of The Shipping News he had given me (still imprinted from his personal library) that I took with me cross-country to his funeral. I pulled it off the shelf because I wanted Uncle Ben to be with me on the trip, to hold something in my hands that once had resided in his. Together, we read again the book we both enjoyed so much. It made the grief a little bit easier to bear. And no, it wouldn’t have worked at all with a Kindle.

Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book edited by Sean Manning
Da Capo Press
ISBN: 030681921X
240 Pages