On the Subway with Madame Bovary
Tucked into a corner of my bookcase is a list of books I’ve read since I started keeping a record in 1982, now thirty years ago. The list is a reminder not only of what I’ve read, but also of what I’ve not found time to read. Favorite authors like Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are there, of course, as are Pat Conroy, John Banville, and Matthew Pearl. David Baldacci and James Patterson are not. Nor, curiously, are the Harry Potter books (there’s always been so much else to read), though I’ve recently read The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s first book aimed at an adult audience.
Old friends Annie Dillard and Joan Didion show up, and spiritual guides John O’Donohue and Thomas Merton are there. The list includes many titles on American history (Mayflower, 1776, Washington, John Adams, Team of Rivals), and a more universal taste in authors (Paul Coelho, Italo Calvino, Orhan Pamuk, Kaled Hosseini, Jhumpa Lahiri). There are books on my abiding interest in Irish history and literature, and reams and reams of memoir. Forays into contemporaryh fiction include Paul Auster, Jonathan Franzen, Chad Harbvach, and Denis Johnson, while the veteran Philip Roth, who recently announced his retirement from writing, appears one last time. Some books by popular authors Ken Follet and Barbara Kingsolver appear, as do riveting reads like Ian Toll’s An Instance at the Fingerpost and Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.
The list suggests to me not only the diversity of my interests, but also their sheer parochialism. My reading is uneven at best. Titles range from literary criticism to fiction, from biography to memoir, history, and poetry. From drama to theology, from mystery to politics. This year I’ve begun to read e-books on my Nook, but I still prefer to feel the heft of a book in my hands, the pulpy texture of the pages, to smell the feint dark scent of the ink.
In the end, the list provides for me a sort of time capsule. Just as it speaks to me of what I’ve read over the years, so too my list of books often conjures the locale where I was reading a particular title. Mention of Madam Bovary carries me back at once to a crowded subway car in New York City on a sweltering summer morning. Just where Flaubert, Emma, and I were going escapes me now, but I find us on the list of books for 1982. What’s more, it seems to me now that we are there still, rumbling along the tracks toward the next station on the Lexington Avenue line, as we always will be, until perhaps we meet again someplace else in time when I take up the book once more. In the meantime, I look forward to discovering the joys of Harry Potter with my granddaughter, Chloe', sitting beside the fire on a cold winter's night in the years ahead.