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How Books Invent Us

Screen Shot 2019-01-10 at 11.52.45 AMIn the introduction to What to Read and Why (HarperCollins, $23.99), Francine Prose recalls a family vacation during her eighth-grade summer in which she sat in the back seat of her parents’ car reading a collection of Gothic tales. Her parents pleaded with her to “just look at the Grand Canyon,” but to no avail: “I was somewhere else: near Pisa in 1823, listening to a man and woman have the type of conversations that I hoped to have someday with a handsome (and preferably aristocratic) stranger.” John Milton’s observation that “a mind is its own place” was also internalized at a young age by Pamela Paul, who writes in My Life with Bob (Henry Holt, $16) about how the books she read enabled her to inhabit two places simultaneously: “There’s where I was physically, sitting in the cat-wallpapered room I’d ambitiously decorated in the second grade or at a leftover table in the high school cafeteria—and then there was where I lived in my mind, surround- ed by my chosen people, conversing with aplomb in carefully appointed drawing rooms or roaming in picturesque fashion across windswept English landscapes.”

Prose and Paul, along with Jill Bialosky in Poetry Will Save Your Life (Atria, $24), offer us a window into “the lives we read”—Paul’s term for the parallel lives we lead through the books we read. Paul, the current editor of the New York Times Book Review, whose “life is engulfed with books,” introduces us to Bob, the nick- name for her Book of Books—a bound notebook containing a list of every book she has read since her junior year in high school. She explores how various entries in Bob offer her a window into episodes in her life—growing up in 1980s suburban Long Island in a house that was formerly a library, studying abroad in France, working in a bookstore, living independently in Thailand, surviving a failed early marriage that gave way to romance and motherhood, and working as the Book Review editor of The New York Times.

Paul’s book reads as if she wrote it by matching the narrative of her life to the various books she read at the time, whereas Jill Bialosky’s Poetry Will Save Your Life seems to work the other way, retroactively assigning poems to various life experiences. “Poetry follows me to Hebrew school on Saturday mornings when the rabbi reads from the Song of Solomon,” she asserts in a chapter about the recitation of Psalm 23 at her grandmother’s funeral. Both Paul and Bialosky’s books are bibliomemoirs, showcasing how the literature we read becomes deeply personal when it is contextualized by our experiences. In contrast, Prose’s book is primarily a collection of her book reviews and her introductions to re-issued classics, showcasing her formidable critical prowess. Even those chapters that were not originally book reviews—an essay about “ten things that art can do,” or a primer in writing clearly—essentially function like good book reviews, serving as “a way of tell- ing people—strangers—about something terrific I think they should read. Drop everything. Start reading. Now.”

Prose’s What to Read and Why, in spite of its no-nonsense title, is the most cerebral of the three. While most of the chapters focus on specific works of literature, they are laden with gems that o er us new ways of thinking more broadly about what we read and why: “To say that we try to avoid art that is depress- ing or disturbing is a back- handed compliment to its power to affect us.” Bialosky would undoubtedly agree. Several of the dozens of poems she quotes in full in her book are depressing and disturbing, serving to illuminate episodes such as her mother’s desperation as a young widow with three small daughters to support and raise, her stepfather’s abandonment, her sister’s suicide. And yet one can- not help but sense that the depth of feeling in the poems outstrips the emotions Bialosky recollects, leaving the reader wishing that Bialosky—herself a poet and a book editor— had allowed herself to dive deeper into the wreck. For this we need Pamela Paul, who offers us the deeper intimacy that we as readers crave from memoirists: we understand why only the yellow-covered Nancy Drews would do, and we too are crestfallen when her daughter initially refuses to read on in the A Wrinkle in Time trilogy, and we are tempted to start our own book of books to log our read- ing—that is, unless we already have one. (Mine is electronic and more heavily annotated. My life with E-bob, perhaps.)

Prose, Paul, and Bialosky share a sense that literature is at once a way of escaping our lives, and a guide for how best to live them. Prose describes reading as a refuge from the cares and concerns of her everyday life, and Paul speaks of the books she read a child as a “kind of secondhand rebellion, a safe way to go o the rails.” Bialosky explains where we go following that derailment: “Like a map to an unknown city a poem might lead you toward an otherwise unreached experience; but once you’ve reached it, you recognize it immediately.” None of these authors seems to have much use for self-help, finding consolation and wisdom instead in poetry (Bialosky), or in “the dark, sad memoirs of darker, sadder people” (Paul), or in the power of literature to serve as “the dri wood humans cling to when they worry, as they always have, that our species is drowning” (Prose). Presumably all three would agree with Czeslaw Milosz, whose poem “Ars Poetica?” is quoted by Bialosky to explain how poems can come to our aid:

“There was a time when only wise books were read, / Helping us to bear our pain and misery. / This, after all, is not quite the same / as leafing through a thou \sand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.”

In the golden age of self-help it is all too tempting to turn to those thou- sand works from the psychiatric clinics for advice about how to lead our lives, but all three authors recount that when they were young they looked instead to Little Women, which provided Paul with a vision of ideal family life, allowed Bialosky to believe that maybe one day she’d become a writer like Jo, and taught Prose and her generation “to grow into braver and larger human beings.”

Taken together, these books offer readers a deeper familiarity not just with a host of novels and poems, but also with three extraordinary literary guides. Paul, Prose, and Bialosky become as real to us as the characters and turns of phrase to which they introduce us: We finish these books knowing not just what they have read, but when and where and how and why. “There is something humanizing about the intimacy a book creates between the author and the reader,” Prose observes when contrasting literature with video games. “One of the things that most disturbs me about the way in which children may come to prefer electronic devices and video games to books is that they no longer know or intuit that an individual person has created the thing that is the source of their pleasure. Rather, they come to understand… that a corporation has provided them with entertainment and happiness. Thank you, Google. Thank you, Apple.” There is no such risk with any of these titles. Thank you, Pamela Paul. Thank you, Francine Prose. Thank you, Jill Bialosky. We have you to thank for the works of literature you brought into your own lives—and now into ours.

Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink, won the 2018 Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature.