Someone should start a blog or a podcast about bookpaths. Maybe I will. It wouldn’t be just about books themselves, their stories or their style, but about how certain books find their way to us and through us to others, and often circle back to us repeatedly over the course of our lives.
I had a novel published recently, and a friend who read it told me that it had reminded her of another novel, Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which I’d never read. She gave me her yellowed, dog-eared copy of it, and I read and loved it, no doubt in part because I was deeply flattered that something I’d written would remind anyone of such a beautifully-crafted novel about the inherent glory of ordinary lives.
When I finished it, I went to put it on our bookshelves, among the fiction, in the “S”s (yes, that’s the kind of guy I am). And there, where it should be, but where it had been long languishing, forgotten, was another Stegner novel, his most famous, Angle of Repose, which I’d also never read, but was now excited to. And I opened the front cover and there was a handwritten note from my daughter, now in her forties, dated 1998:
Happy Birthday, Dad.
This is one of my favorite books.
I hope you like it.
Now that’s a bookpath. I have no idea why I hadn’t read it in all those years; I was a much busier person then, I suppose. But it was a gift from my daughter, and anything that’s her favorite anything is of keen interest to me. Maybe it, and I, were waiting till the right moment, when I was better prepared for it, and it would mean most.
Another bookpath is the one where you read a book at one point in your life, and then again decades later, and it has a completely different meaning. This may have something to do with the developmental maturity of the reader, but more likely is the result of sheer accumulation of both reading and real-life experience. This can work both ways, as when a book you cherished in your youth doesn’t hold up well under later scrutiny, and also when a book you thought was passably okay when read in your twenties reveals itself to be a riveting work of genius when re-read in your fifties.
My encounters with the writings of James Salter, for instance, occurred in two widely-separated periods of my reading life; first, when I was in my thirties and discovered Solo Faces, his incomparable short novel about an American alpinist in France; A Sport and a Pastime, about a young American and his French girlfriend, motoring and ruminating and lovemaking their way through Provence; and Light Years, arguably his finest novel, about a couple and their daughters living on the banks of the Hudson not far from New York City, whose ambitions to live distinctive lives erode their marriage over decades.
I remember finding Pastime rather impenetrable at the time, fascinated though I was by all the lyrically-described sex. Solo Faces seemed rather leadenly intellectual compared to The Eiger Sanction, a thriller involving mountain climbing that was published around the same time. And though Light Years was recognizable even then as Salter’s claim to the pantheon of Great American Writers, I thought it too antique in style, not nearly as hip as my beloved Updike (whose writing, ironically, has suffered a bit for me with the passage of time).
Some thirty years later, I re-read these books as part of a re-discovery of Salter brought on when I began to work on my above-mentioned novel and turned for inspiration to Light Years, with its beautifully elegiac depiction of the long, slow disintegration of a blessed and doomed marriage. Stunned by it as I had not been as a younger man, I began a study of everything Salter had ever written, revisiting Solo Faces as a reader who had, by then, been in alpine mountains and, more pertinently, been tutored in the ways life can thwart ambition, and revisiting A Sport and a Pastime as a reader who cared less about the sex scenes than about the words perfectly chosen to describe them, and who could recognize first-hand the uncanny precision with which Salter captured the small towns and countryside and ineffable romanticism of France.
I re-read Salter’s peripatetic memoir, Burning the Days, luxuriating in its period (basically that of my parents) and in Salter’s magical ability to conjure immersive atmosphere out of a few exquisite word-strokes. And in the midst of this binge, during which I read nothing but Salter, not wanting to break the spell of his style, hoping that it would infect mine, came All That Is, published in 2013, basically a fictionalized autobiography, long and plotless, episodic and elegiac (as I hoped my novel would turn out to be) – an old man’s book, looking back, saluting the past from the high promontory of a life fully lived. (Note to self for another blog post: old men’s books.)
In a similar way, I’ve recently been on a Wallace Stegner binge, brought about by that friend’s handing me that copy of Crossing to Safety, published in 1987 when I was otherwise occupied. I thought I knew Stegner, having read exactly one of his novels, All The Little Live Things (1967), when I was in my twenties. But I didn’t. I had never read his autobiographical novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, assuming from its title that it must be some kind of funky kin to Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (despite the fact that Wolfe’s milestone of New Journalism came out in 1968, and Mountain was published, unbeknownst to me, in 1943, and the title derives from a 1920s hobo ballad). It’s a thinly-veiled account of his family’s travels and tribulations in the first half of last century, and a paean to the elusive fantasy of success in the American West.
I’m ashamed to say I had never even heard of Crossing to Safety — a wonderfully evocative joint portrait of two couples whose lives and careers intertwine across their adulthoods — before that friend handed it to me. I’m glad I or it waited, as I don’t think I could have fully appreciated the perspective of the aged narrator till I’d reached approximately his point in life. That’s one short but highly efficient bookpath.
My thorough amazement at Safety led me to finally read that long-ago gift from my daughter, widely thought to be Stegner’s finest novel, and the one that earned him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972 — Angle of Repose. I’d long guessed that this must be in the same vein as All The Little Live Things (which chronicled a middle-aged couple navigating the turbulent Sixties) — and hence why repeat it?— but couldn’t have been more wrong.
Angle is narrated, again, by an old man in his and the century’s seventies who is researching and imagining the life, loves, and losses of his grandmother Susan as he lives out his last days in the house she’d died in not long before. Based on the letters of an actual American artist of the 1800s who lived a transcontinental life on the frontier of the gold rush and in the refined east, for me it stands as one of the most empathetic explorations by a male writer of the female heart, in a female voice, that I’ve ever read, and a remarkable evocation of the old American West that shatters any number of clichés about how life was lived in that time and place. And again, had I read it as a young man, I doubt I could have tolerated its meticulous immersion in the long ago, nor could I have identified with a narrator older than my father. Now I can, and do. When I finished it, I handed it to my wife and assured her she too would love it; and she does.
And so the bookpaths branch and multiply. What are yours?