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December 2, 2008

Charlotte Bacon: The Portable Joys of Reading

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Today's guest blogger is Charlotte Bacon --- author of four novels, including SPLIT ESTATE. Here, she reflects on childhood summer road trips with The Lord of the Rings and the abilities that books have to connect people, regardless of the distance between them.

In my family, books were passed around until they barely resembled themselves anymore. They could be read or transported anywhere, and they were: cars, subways, trees, bathtubs, all as a sort of an extra limb. As a consequence, they were buckled, foxed, torn, and warped from all that use --- more like ancient sweaters than sacred objects and preserved long past when others would have passed them on or exchanged them for something fresher. We did this to good books and bad, Tintins and mysteries, and they followed us wherever we went, and grew rain-speckled or sandy depending on the season. Books were more like food, something bought, borrowed, inhaled as regularly and messily as we ate. It was always better to be reading or being read to than doing anything else.

When I was nine, my mother read the Trilogy of the Ring aloud to us in the car as we drove from Manhattan to the ragged corner of upstate New York, where we spent weekends. As an effort to impose peace on three children, two cats (one an unstoppable vomiter) and a dog, it was unmatchable. But I don't think she realized how relentless we would be. Her voice grew hoarse and still we insisted, another chapter, more, more. Shelob was coming. The orcs were gathering. Frodo was tiring. All of it more real than the New York Thruway, and far more exciting. Wishing we were eating elf crackers rather than ham and cheese on rye from Paris's deli. Sometimes we'd arrive and couldn't leave the car until she'd finished a particular grisly episode, my father grumbling about being left with all the bags, the cat finally teetering out of the tire well, the three of us hunched in the back seat as the dark and the crickets gathered and my mother read to us of elves and swords, Gondor and Aragorn.

So, singling out one book that I've given or received would be like choosing which hand I liked best. I'm a liberal loaner of books and don't really care if they come back to me, figuring that the more people reading, the better. I've also continued the tradition of loving books to death with my own kids, who haul their battered favorites everywhere we go. Having recently moved to Bali, the books we used to read in New York have a talismanic quality and remind us of other weather, friends, and places. They are deeply reassuring, redolent of our other histories. As with wedding presents, I remember who has given me which book, and every time I open one, I crack wide as well a memory of that friend or relative. Books are themselves, their own discrete creations, of course, but they have other, oddly connective capacities as well.

Three small examples of what I mean. An old friend suggested I'd like Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, and he was right. I fell in love with her humor, her seriousness, and her lovely, warm prose. ITALIAN DAYS became my favorite and I recommended it to another old friend, my adviser from high school. He loved it and passed it on to others, extending the book's reach like an echo. I'd thought of him because his passion for books, treating language and story as a necessary, daily immersion in a way of being, not something arcane, reserved for specialists or, worse, snobs, bound me to him deeply. He, like my family, wove books to life and in thanks for that, I dedicated my third novel to him. (For my money, that's probably one of the best parts of publishing --- the chance to emphasize gratitude on that first, white page.)

My mother, to whom I dedicated my second novel, is another person who makes of reading an essential pursuit. When I went to see her in London last winter, the first question she asked was, "What do you have to read?" I'd brought Patrick Leigh Fermor and, rather stingily, told her she could have it but only until the week was up. Of course, she wasn't done in time, and in an act of what I considered true sacrifice, I told her she could take it back to New York even though I hadn't read it yet. True to form, when it arrived back in Bali, it was barely recognizable from its immersion in bath water. Just as I expected, just as I'd hoped. Much loved --- the book, the person, the gift of all that portable joy wrapped in one.

Join us tomorrow, as Debbie Macomber discusses how her love of musicals led her to discover who was to become one of her favorite authors.