I have two bookish confessions to make. The first is that I keep a running list of every book I have read since I graduated from college some twenty years ago. The list includes the author and title as well as the month and year I finished each book. The list includes books I read for the classes I teach as well as books I read for “pleasure.” The list includes unabridged audio books, or at least it would if I had ever actually finished listening to one in its entirety.
I keep the list to remember and to mark my progress—each year I try to read at least one more book than I read the previous year. The list also helps me recall not just the titles, but the cities in which I lived and the specific places in which I read those books: at a coffee shop in Austin, on the beach on vacation in Puerto Rico, in my grandparent’s house one winter in Vermont, on the couch in my small apartment in New Hampshire, in a summer sublet in Boston. The list generates strong associations with the past—with the seasons, the weather, the people around me, the fleeting episodes of happiness, confusion, sadness in my life. The list, in other words, is more than a tally of books. Each book anchors me in a moment.
My second bookish confession is that each year, after Thanksgiving, I begin the pleasantly agonizing process of selecting the books I will take home with me for the holidays. I stack, I list, I revise lists, I restack. I try to figure out which books I want to relish during my December visit to family in New Jersey. It is, admittedly, quite the process. Almost always it must be a novel. Something I have wanted to read for a while. Something that will offer satisfaction and escape, and not too much challenge. Something I will look forward to reading after my parents have gone to sleep (which happens earlier and earlier each year), or before my nephews rush into my bedroom to wake me up the next morning (which, thankfully, happens later and later each year). I usually start with about fifteen books and taper it down to two or three by the time I pack my suitcase.
This holiday season, I took a moment to revisit the books I read during past December visits. Ever the connector of dots, I found some curious patterns. Unbeknownst to me until now, the books I read over the holidays tend to fall into four sometimes overlapping categories: from mom’s bookshelf, work-inspired, political, and ambitiously literary.
Apparently on several visits home, I abandoned my carefully chosen books and instead selected one from my mother’s bookshelf in her office. My mother likes buying used books at public library sales, and she’s amassed an impressive collection over the years. I pulled Hard Times from the shelf in 1994, A Clockwork Orange the year before (why did my mother have this one?).
When I taught in an Education department at a college in North Carolina a few years ago, it seems I was inspired to read school stories: Old School, the excellent prep school novel by Tobias Wolff, followed the next winter by the classic Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
Election seasons punctuate my list: Howard Dean’s Winning Back America in December 2003, Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope in December 2006.
The rest of the books fall into the ambitiously literary category, books I must have picked because I was on some mission to expand my literary horizons over the holidays. One Christmas I read Kafka’s The Castle. Another year I worked through Nabokov’s Palefire (so much for the “not too challenging” criterion) and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. In 1997 I read a biography of Zora Neale Hurston. In 2008, it was Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. Raymond Carver’s Cathedral and George Eliot’s Silas Marner were my Yuletide pleasures in 1996.
What these four categories have in common is setting: my parents’ house, the place I left at age 18 and return to every Christmas. These are the books I have read in my childhood bed, now long donated to one of my sisters. In the guest bed in the basement. On the couch in front of the fireplace in the living room. In the oversized recliner in the den. Each holiday book brings back the smells and tastes of home cooking, family voices, a glimpse of snowflakes outside the window, the barking of my parents’ dog. This may be why I select the books with such care: they will absorb these memories. Preserve them. These books will carry a little bit of family history with them. They will be so much more than an author and a title on a list.
Which reminds me—I still need to whittle down my stack for next week. Happy holidays, readers.