Sometimes books find you, and not the other way around. And when that occurs, I believe you should just accept the weirdness of it all.
I believe there’s something esoteric about the way certain books reach you. Some of my favourite reads have found their way to me through curious convoluted circumstances, that would perhaps not have happened if I had not allowed myself that sanguine acceptance of weird things occurring in my orbit.
My absolute favourite trans book, Confessions of the Fox, came from the worst book club I ever had the misfortune of attending, its members so pretentious and asinine that I couldn’t stomach more than a few meetings before giving it up (the type of people who brag about how much money they spent buying books from Amazon and use phrases like “this is clearly the author’s first novel”). And yet, this was their selected book, and I devoured it to thoroughly, so entranced in its triple-trans-trouble story (trans author, trans narrator, trans character in the story-within-a-story frame) – I even read it at work, ebook reader precariously balanced in my lap while I half-assed the actual work I was supposed to do. So as disastrous as the book club itself was, I cannot find it in me to regret attending it – because then I (probably) would have never found this book.
While at University, there was a second-hand book stall in the main square, peddling cheap £1-£2 wares. During a break between language classes, I picked up the unassuming 84, Charing Cross Road/The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, a mere pocket book that I could literally fit in my coat pocket, and went back to class. I began reading it in another break, flipping its yellowed pages, and read and read, ignoring my friends, ignoring that I was in the way of some students setting up a potluck in the student room, and finally having to take refuge in a computer lab to finish reading it in the same day. It’s a marvellous story of books and war and friendship – and I couldn’t put it down.
I spent a year in Italy through the Erasmus programme, and once that was over and done with, I decided to visit my old University mates for a charming reunion. Except it wasn’t charming, as I got ghosted and ignored, and then ended up wondering around my old University town much as a ghost would – observing the paths I used to take and the places I used to haunt when alive, nostalgic for a more ignorant state of mind. I entered a bookshop and asked what Umberto Eco books they had, knowing him only as an Italian author I should read one day. The two booksellers shuffled around the stacks of precariously balanced books on the shelves, on the floor, nested into gaps in the ceiling, and brought me a selection. I chose Non sperate di liberarvi dei libri, a conversation with Jean-Claude Carrière (clumsily translated into English as This is Not the End of the Book; the literal translation from Italian would have been Don’t hope to be rid of books, which is a lot more romantic). I read this book on trains travelling across the Italian plains, and meditated on the comfort of books amidst the superficiality of human existence, before realising – no. It’s not books that bring comfort. It’s the humanity transcribed within them.
I received The Shadow of the Wind as a Christmas gift, and it sat on my bookshelves, muribund, until the next Christmas, when – appropriately ashamed at my laziness, especially as I was preparing for a Christmas gift exchange with the same person – I read it in a manner of days. To this day, this is the type of book that best illustrates my aspirations as a writer. This is the way I wish I could write. And I had no idea, no concept of it, and yet it lay dormant just a few feet away from me in my room, waiting for me. And I’m so thankful for that.
I’m always telling myself, “No more buying books, no more visiting bookshops, read what you already have,” and I already read plenty of what I already have, but yet I still visit bookshops, seek out the second-hand section, and tilt my head to the left (my left) to read the titles of books I’ve heard of, I’ve never known, I’ve yet to find.
There is a certain vulnerability you have to open yourself to, when it comes to mysterious books finding their way to you. It’s infinitely easier to read an excerpt, a review, a recommendation, and go from there (and I often find my books that way). But a bit of unpredictability goes a long way.
When I was a child, my mother bought me kid fantasy books based on whatever criteria she thought appropriate – colourful cover? bookseller recommendation? – and it was always a new adventure, all the way down the rabbit hole, without knowing what I was getting myself into. I was a smart kid back then – I never read the blurbs or whatever praise/nominations/awards it won – I just jumped straight into chapter one.
I think that’s still a good mentality. Just jump in the (metaphorical) waters of a book and see where it takes you. If you don’t like the ride, well, there’s a pit stop right ahead – jump off (nothing bad will happen if you stop reading books that don’t grab you by the mid-way point, I promise you). But if you do like the ride, then take it all the way to the end.
And then start reading another book.
- Jordy Rosenberg – Confessions of the Fox
- Helene Hanff – 84, Charing Cross Road/The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
- Umberto Eco & Jean-Claude Carrière – Non sperate di liberarvi dei libri (This is Not the End of the Book)
- Carlos Ruiz Zafón – The Shadow of the Wind