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Fort Wayne Reader
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
Times past, buying Christmas presents was never a big deal for me — it was always a safe bet that anyone close to me was sure to be a voracious reader, so around the 3rd week of December, I'd amble over to Hyde Brothers Booksellers and get all my shopping done in one fell swoop. Whenever I heard horror stories about endless trips to the mall and hours and hours devoted to getting a Christmas list completed, I'd shake my head in wonder. My total time spent buying presents usually amounted to about 40 minutes, tops, and that included a couple of minutes spent talking to friends I knew who worked there. I know part of the fun of Christmas is hassling over getting just the right present for the right person, but that's never been a part of my holiday tradition. It's always been a relatively stress-free time for me, and I've deftly avoided the mad rushings-about so redolent of this time of year.
Getting older, though, I've discovered that I can no longer trust these time-honored practices. I've discovered that mating the right book to the right person has become a much trickier proposition that I previously thought. This fact was brought home to me recently when I realized that I have two books on my night stand right now, two presents from friends, that I've yet to crack open. The books are highly literary, impressively-reviewed novels from authors that I'm genuinely interested in, yet I haven't made a single effort to dive into the stories. The timing hasn't been right, or I haven't been in the appropriate mood, or something, and now the books just sit there, mocking me, making me feel vaguely guilty for being such a disloyal friend. I almost feel like throwing a T-shirt over them, so I won't feel so bad seeing them there, unopened, unloved, all alone. God knows I can't move them to the bookshelf, for that would be the ultimate betrayal — to someone, though I'm not quite sure who.
Okay, so it's obvious that I'm an old Fort Wayne Catholic with tons of unresolvable guilt. Given. But I still believe that my dilemma shows how truly peculiar the relationship between reader and book can be. Reading is a terrific pleasure, all right, but it's also a solitary, lonely one — when you discover a great book, it's hard not to feel like you're the only person around for miles, like you're the first one to make tracks in this newly fallen snow. It can be thrilling, but it's lonely. I know that book clubs are popular and that some readers like to share their experiences as they go, but I can't have any of that. It seems to violate the very essence of reading, to make it so communal.
Frankly, it's gotten to the point that when a good friend asks me to recommend a new book for him to read, I'd almost feel more comfortable telling him who his next girlfriend should be instead. Trying to direct someone toward the "right" book seems too personal, too intimate. I think of my own reading history, of the capricious times when I discovered some oddball, gem of a novel in the most surprising places — house sitting in Florida, finding J.B. Priestly's Lost Empires, or in high school, stealing my girlfriend's book The Cheerleader by Ruth Doan MacDougal — much of the fun of being a reader is the unexpected pleasure of mysterious books seeking you out, finding you at the right time. Getting a book from a friend, no matter how well-intentioned, eliminates some of that excitement, and can make reading seem like more of a duty. Of course I have my favorite authors, and I will dutifully stroll into the library for the "new" Henning Mankel, or the "new" Haruki Murakami, but I always relish the chance when some unthought-of book presents itself to me.
Trying to buy a book for a friend also prompts an obvious but necessary question — how well do you really know your friend? The worst book-present I've ever received was A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from 1981. The book was a pretty popular title among college students of the era, and indeed, many of my English major friends at I.U. loved it. I received it as a present at Christmas, 1982, and I discovered after 50 pages that I absolutely hated it. I'm sure that my disdain for the novel surprised the friend who bought it for me — the book was irreverent, wry, "off-beat," and I'm sure my friend thought it would fit my personality exactly. But no — though in real life I was indeed irreverent, wry, "off-beat," I certainly didn't like my books that way. I was more traditional, I liked the old guys, it was all Steinbeck and Tolstoy and Shakespeare and Dickens for me then. I was surprised that my friend didn't recognize that who I was and what I read were two completely different things.
Since I received those two books that are currently sitting like cinderblocks on my night table, I've read probably a dozen or so other novels in their place. It's galling to admit that most of the books I've been reading are old favorites: The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler; The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham; Good Times/Bad Times by James Kirkwood. For some reason, this makes it infinitely worse: it's like I'm seeing an ex-girlfriend on the side or something. I don't know why I spend so much time re-reading old books. You'd think that with all the great works out there, I'd seek out the ones I haven't read. But I've read each of those books at least a dozen times, and it seems that every year I toss away that New Important Novel for something that I can probably quote verbatim. Funny thing, about re-reading: it seems that every book that I chronically return to is something I read in my 20's, when I was young and improving. I bet it's like that for most people, that the books that caught them at the exact, right moment, when they're most receptive, are the ones they hold onto longest. It's a classic case of imprinting, just like the baby ducks who'll follow a dog that they think is their mother.
Of course, now I'm starting to wonder if any of the books that I've previously bought as presents ever got read by anybody. Maybe they're sitting on someone's bedside table right now, as I write this, unopened, unloved. For the owners of those books, I say: Free Yourself. Say goodbye to that guilt. Please, go back to Pride and Prejudice, take another trip to Jane Eyre. I won't take it personally.