Recently, I admitted to a friend (via Twitter so somewhat publicly) that I do not take risks as a reader. I will mindlessly consume a terrible television show without a second thought, but if a book isn’t written by Joan Didion, Barbara Kingsolver, or Toni Morrison, I let my fear keep me from taking chances. Hating a TV show is inconsequential in my world, but hating a book—or worse, being disappointed by a book—is dangerous business. Each disappointing book (I’m looking at you, The Marriage Plot) chips away at my soul.
I read a couple of Meg Wolitzer books last year, and they were good. I try not to be picky. I mean, I don’t have a ton of time for extra, non-work reading, but I do have some time. I have enough time. The Wolitzer books were, like I said, good. (For the record, I liked The Ten Year Nap better than The Interestings and The Uncoupling, but what I really liked was Meg Wolitzer’s interviews on NPR.) But none of them set my heart (and my brain) on fire the way that Run River or Animal Dreams or Beloved did. It’s rare that I read a book that makes me cry under the weight of the realization that I won’t ever, ever write a sentence the way those writers do and yet I’ll always keep trying. It may not sound like an objectively positive feeling, but I’m addicted to it. I’m chasing that feeling every time I pick up a book.
I have read every Didion novel and every Kingsolver one too. I have 2.5 novels left on the Morrison bibliography. (I read half of Tar Baby and then lost the book. I know, who am I anymore?) I’m saving the remaining Morrison novels for that proverbial rainy day. I’ve basically adopted a hoarder’s mentality. I’ll need them someday. I know I will.
Over winter break, I took a small risk. I read a Doris Lessing book. I know what you’re thinking: I was playing it pretty safe with a Nobel Prize winner. I have been wanting to read The Golden Notebook for awhile now, for obvious reasons. It’s part of the feminist fiction canon and all that. They didn’t have The Golden Notebook at the used book I happened to be standing inside when I decided to take this leap so I bought The Summer Before the Darkness instead.
This is a great book. The Feminine Mystique-esque plot was perhaps a little lackluster, being that it was mostly a struggle inside the main character’s mind (but, really, what struggles aren’t mostly in our minds?) and, anyway, who notices plot issues when there are sentences like this?
“The truth was, she was becoming more and more uncomfortably conscious not only that the things she said, and a good many of the things she thought, had been taken down off a rack and put on, but that what she really felt was something else again.”
And this one, describing a fifteen-year-old boy:
“His face, which had been contorted with the pain of having to be his age, began to soften.”
The Summer Before the Darkness gave me that fleeting literary high that I’m always pursuing, and I started off 2014 in contentment, happy to be without that wild-eyed junkie face I get when I’ve read too many disappointing books in a row or, worse, I’ve gone too long without reading any novels at all. I will read more of Lessing’s work as soon as I am done reading Tar Baby, which the aforementioned Twitter conversation reminded me I still need to finish. I started it over because I couldn’t remember where I was when I was so rudely interrupted by my own carelessness. Tar Baby is so far a perfect Morrison book. It takes place in the 1970s so it doesn’t have that historical aspect that so many of her novels have but it still has that characteristic sharpness. She knows her characters better than any author I’ve ever read, and she isn’t afraid to let them be a little bit despicable, the way we all are at least slightly, if only on dark occasions that we’d never acknowledge in the cold, unforgiving glare of the daytime.
I’m glad I took a risk with Lessing because having only three authors I can read reliably and without risk leaves me with a small pool for my mind to swim in, but I’m also glad that I still have these 2.5 Morrison books in my literary savings account.
Toni Morrison is better at metaphors than I am.