I have always felt pressure to find good books to read because everything in life takes on more importance when I am reading a finely woven piece of literature. I don’t know that I have actually had trouble identifying good reads as much as I feel some anxiety as I approach the end of a story into which I am immersed. I don’t want to let go of the characters, and I wonder whether the next book (or any other) will be able to recreate for me that wonderful feeling of literary travel.
In graduate school, I underwent a reawakening to literature. I had eschewed literature in college, reading only those tomes that counted strictly as “philosophy.” Later, for pleasure I developed an interest in long-form journalism: non-fiction investigations like Among the Lowest of the Dead, Newjack, and All God’s Children. I would always have a book in hand and would steal reading time from the briefest of waits at the bus stop and on the bus. I used to cut the finger tips out of my gloves so that I could turn pages without letting the rest of my hand get cold.
In a moment of desperation, between trips to the Montague Bookmill, the Jeffery Amherst Bookshop, or any one of the seemingly thousands of used book stores of western Massachusetts, I picked up Sanctuary, by William Faulkner. From the heart-racing escape scenes of Sanctuary I moved to the frenetic pace of Richard Wright’s Native Son, and then discovered some lingering homesickness for the southern Appalachians through Ron Rash’s One Foot in Eden. In a few years, I kindled a nearly-burnt out passion for literature. By the time I was in graduate school, I offered to teach a course in Philosophy and Literature. And my thirst for good reads has kept me thumbing through paperbacks ever since.
But back to the problem of finding good books to read. I used to ask friends for recommendations as birthday or holiday gifts. I have postcards and scraps of paper with lists from friends; the books they recommended have been some of the most exciting stories I have loved. I still favor giving books as gifts to friends. But I also, still, feel some anxiety about finding the next book to read. I know there is more good literature out there than I will have time for over the course of my life, but I still cherish the idea that someone is helping me find something unexpectedly joyful and beautiful to be absorbed in for a time.
I am now experimenting with Goodreads, a social network based on books. If you’re a Goodreads member, please find me and share with me your recommendations.