What are you really reading?

For over 30 years, I taught literature. I never flinched as I introduced classic books to my students, and almost without exception the kids loved them. At the end of the school year they asked me for a list of my favorite books, even though they knew it would not influence their grades. As an extension of my job, friends have asked for book recommendations, and I have never hesitated to suggest challenging books. I have been known to say, “You have to read A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Or “The Things They Carried is an amazing read.” Or “I think you’ll love Consider the Lobster.” I have argued with a university professor at an airport over the necessity of teaching The Scarlet Letter and Shakespeare. In other words, anyone listening would consider me a literary snob. And the listener would be right.
However, just as gourmet chefs sometimes have a secret love for junk food, English teachers may also enjoy books that would not appear on the top-100 list for Ivy League students. At least this English teacher does. I can get absorbed in mysteries set in tearooms or knit shops. The protagonist can be a caterer or a pet groomer. I can usually guess the murderer on page two, but I still enjoy watching the story unravel—if the characters are interesting.
My two reading worlds have been a little like Berlin before the fall of the wall, and there has been no reason for me to acknowledge my guilty pleasure. However, my husband and I have been spending a lot of time in the car, and when we are driving eight hours to visit friends, we don’t always have access to our favorite NPR programs. We’ve filled in the gap with books that I’ve downloaded to my smart phone. It is not that easy to find books that we both enjoy. First of all, the esoteric history books that my husband usually prefers are not good candidates for listening. The same holds true for the books on my A list. A case in point is Cormac McCarthy’s On the Road. It is one of the greatest books written in the past twenty years, so I thought it would be a great book for us to share as we drove to visit friends. It is a powerful read, but it left us too depressed to enjoy our vacation.
Some books have been successful. Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures was the perfect combination of story and history to keep both of us entertained. The Swan Thieves, on the other hand, did not hold my husband’s interest at all. The True History of the Kelly Gang was good, but we missed a lot of the story because it was told in a heavy Australian accent. They used “adjectival” the way someone today might use a particularly harsh expletive, but I haven’t been able to find where it comes from, and hearing it bothered me throughout the 15 hours we listened.
I knew we would be driving this week, so I decided to take a risk and share one of my favorite mystery writers with my husband. This decision was more serious than you might imagine. Yes, he knows that I read books with lurid titles (Scones and Bones is one that he found particularly humorous), but I don’t want him to think that my reading taste is completely frivolous. So, I’m introducing him to Louise Penny through Bury Your Dead. The protagonist is a police detective, at least, and not a caterer who solves mysteries on the side. The setting is in and around Quebec, where we spent our honeymoon. As we started listening I worried that it would not engage my husband who never reads mysteries. I worried that he wouldn’t have enough background to follow the characters who reappear in most of the books that are set in Three Pines. I worried that he would find the story too fluffy, too unsophisticated. For the first fifteen minutes or so, the story jumped around from one set of characters to another without any apparent link, and I could see a furrow form. But before long, Penny’s beautiful prose, her quiet humor, her deftly-handled characters had my husband smiling, chuckling, and even talking about the characters when we stopped to stretch our legs.
Now I’m sharing my story, and this book, with you. This disclosure has given me the courage to reveal what is actually on my nightstand instead of the more literary book that is waiting in the wings for me to have the concentration required to complete a difficult text. I hope you don’t think any less of me. Maybe you’ll even look for a copy of Scones and Bones.

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3 thoughts on “What are you really reading?

  1. Oh I love Louise Penny’s books! I anticipate the newest book every summer – of course they always seem to come out just when I’m getting geared up for school. I’ve read every single one and turned many a friend on to her wonderful story telling.

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