I opened the lid of the container labeled CLASSICS and breathed in books. Like a treasure chest in a bad pirate story, the books seemed to gleam and glow with a light from within. “We’re the good ones,” they whispered.
And surely they are. Books I’ve read over and over. Books I’ve never cracked open but I know they’re good. Books I read once and decided needed to stick around. Books I read for classes and was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked them. Books that underwhelmed me and didn’t live up to the hype. Books I bought because I figured as a literary person I should have whatever it was in my library and I still have not yet read it. Books from my Sinclair Lewis phase, from my Fitzgerald phase, from my Tragic but Strong Women phase, from my Regency phase, and Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five and To Kill a Mockingbird and The Awakening and Catcher in the Rye and at least one book by Toni Morrison.
I was on a quest for The Grapes of Wrath, a book I remember buying ten years ago or more in a second-hand shop in Fort Collins in an attempt to fill my sad and empty shelves when all my books were in storage. I had never read it then and until a week or so ago I hadn’t even opened it. But a few weeks ago NPR Books issued an “I will if you will challenge” to all of us who probably should have read it in high school but were in the American Lit class that read Black Elk Speaks instead. I flashed to the tub of books in my basement labeled CLASSICS and knew that I was going to have to at least go digging.
And there it was, decorously slumbering next to the copy of The Bell Jar I read when I was in a really low place and could only read about five pages at a time because it was physically painful to me to take this journey with the protagonist. And the copy of A Room of One’s Own I bought for myself upon being named editor of my college newspaper. And the copy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles I took off a free book cart in Laramie because it was the first book I’d been assigned to read since the fifth grade that I’d really loved. (The book I loved in fifth grade was The Westing Game, and if you’ve never read it, go read it. It’s short; it won’t take long. And then be prepared to start over from the beginning the moment you finish.) On and on.
As I pulled The Grapes of Wrath from the tub, I knew I would be back for more of those books. It’s not just because I wanted to try to read along with a bunch of strangers online. It’s because it feels good to read a book I know is good. It feels whole. My mind stretches and sighs and my fingers itch to type just to try to put down a string of words that sound half as good and clear and right.
I’m in a mood right now to read books that are work, that require attention span and deep interest. I want to finish a book and feel satisfaction and slight remorse that it’s over and envy of the next person who gets to start that book for the first time. I want to absorb books through my pores and into my bones, not just skim past and move on. I want to drink up the words that are there because the writer labored over them and chose them, not just because they came out in splips and splops and ink blotches.
Lucky for me, I have a whole container of these books in my basement.
(And in case you were wondering, I’m very much enjoying The Grapes of Wrath.)