Sometimes I’m a pretentious literary snot. Unlike most debt-ridden, almost-newlywed, post college twenty-somethings, my wife and I have a library of nearly 800 books (and the number swells monthly). Now we justify it by picking up the books cheap at the used section of Barnes & Noble, where I balk at paying anything over $5 for a book. The 88-cent paperback table is my favorite gold mine.
But sometimes I think all these books make me a bit of a snot. I ride the bus to work and read quite a lot, and I take great pride in telling people how many books I read. Last year I read around 35, and this year I’m on a pace to break 50. I keep a list of the books I read each year, and every time I finish a book and need to select a new one from the shelves, I go over that list in my head and try to find a writer I haven’t read lately. I’d like to say I do this to have some literary diversity, to give myself a broad spectrum of influences, to hear voices from many different cultures, races, genders, societies and times. And that may be true, but I also like having an impressive list of authors I’ve read.
I’ve already read an Anne Lamott book this year, so I pass her up for Barbara Kingsolver, whom I haven’t read since last year. I’ve actually read a few Frederick Buechners, so I better stay away from him. I haven’t read Maya Angelou yet, and I should be able to say that I know why the caged bird sings. Apparently just knowing isn’t enough.
And all this week while reading Maya Angelou’s famous book I keep hoping people notice what book I’m reading. I want them to see this uppity, suburban white boy reading some black literature. I understand your pain. I feel the sting of racism and stand by you in solidarity. That’s what I think. But my actions betray me. Some relative will make a remark about coons and rather than speak my mind I stay silent. I may be seething, and will later consult with my other solidarity-minded relatives and quietly condemn the racist among us, but I never extinguish the hot spark of racism like I probably should. As I walk to my wife’s work in what some would call the wrong end of town I watch my back and pay more attention than I should to each passing car, each African American pedestrian.
I’m as sorry as the rest of them, and it makes me sad.
The other day I was contemplating writing a book about riding the bus and reading books, yet another of the book ideas that cross my mind and slowly slip away unwritten. But the idea of appearing a pompous literary ass who quotes books to sound important soured me.
I like to think I read books because I like to read, not because I want to be important. And I think the best evidence for that is the fact that I’m so quickly swept into the rhythmic plot of a book that I quickly forget to underline witty passages or pay attention to the arrangement of words and sentences the way most writers do. I just read and read, as fast as I can, barreling toward the end of the book to find out what happened.
And maybe that’s how it’s done: being so wrapped up in humanity and discovery and holiness that we don’t realize the passage we quoted is Shakespeare, or the man we befriended is black.