Monthly Wrap: Our Book Collections

by Susan Henderson on October 10, 2008

We have bookshelves throughout our house. And there are books on tabletops, on the corner of the couch, and beside the cereal boxes. But our favorite books typically end up in the living room, on the shelves on either side of the fireplace.

On my side (the shelf on the left) are severely dog-eared paperback editions of African American literature, steel mill poetry, and various books that make me cry. The books I read over and over often sit sideways across the others: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Leaf Storm; William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows; Jean Toomer, Cane; J.D Salinger, Nine Stories; Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (which I’ve read more than any other book, despite having no particular interest in Vietnam or war). The top shelf holds the books I’m in.

On Mr. Henderson’s side are hardcover copies of Russian epics, British fantasy, and science- and disaster-based books. He buys everything by Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie, and Neil Stephenson (he doesn’t like the new one, by the way). And he regularly lends out his two favorites – Magnus Mills, Restraint of Beasts and Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, Good Omens.

Mr. H is careful with the spines of his books, uses bookmarks, never writes grocery lists on the blank pages. We are different in this way. And we enjoy books for different reasons. I like books that are emotionally stimulating; he likes books that are intellectually stimulating.

Over the twenty-plus years we’ve known each other, we’ve occasionally tried to read each other’s books, and it almost never works. It’s not that I’m devoid of intellect or he’s devoid of emotion; and it’s not that one of us has good taste and the other has bad taste. Simply put, we have different passions, and I suspect one of the things that attracts me to him is precisely that.

So, why is it such a slippery slope when we talk about the kinds of books we love?

Maybe it’s because our taste in books shows something about who we are at our core. What thrills or frightens us. What makes us laugh, and what moves us to tears. When someone looks at our favorite book and says, “It was so boring, I couldn’t finish it,” it feels like they’ve criticized us in the most personal way.

This feels all the more personal when you’re not just a reader but a writer, too. I learned this in college.

This is me as an undergrad. I hope to never be so miserable again.

Until then, only my mom and a few teachers had read my writing. Imagine (and this shouldn’t be difficult for most of you) that you’ve come to class to share your writing for the first time. You’ve struggled to create something you hope is deep or funny or clever. But what you discover is you’ve actually bored your readers. You’ve written something confusing and static and self-indulgent.

Wanting to be a writer is sort of like saying, “My goal in life is to be a heroin junkie because I want to be poor, isolated, and too obsessed to spend quality time with the people I love. Also, I want to have insomnia and blurry vision.”

So why keep at it?

I’m going to turn to the wisdom of one of this month’s guests, David Morrell, to say that the reason we keep at it, despite the hard work, despite the rejection is, We have to.

Something (maybe a secret, or a situation we never understood) nags at us, haunts us. It begs us to put it on paper and to get it right. Again, these are David Morrell’s thoughts, which he says much better here and here.

No story will interest everyone, but it’s our job to try to engage and thrill our readers with every tool at our disposal (plot, character, words). Writers of all genres know this struggle of trying to tell the story they need to tell in the best way they know how. There is enough rejection and criticism in this business without us tearing each other down.


Here’s what I read this month: Janet Fitch, Paint it Black (I’ll be the first to buy whatever she writes next); Sharon Olds, The Father (Incredible); Karen Dionne, Freezing Point (My first ever thriller, and I’ll be shocked if it’s not made into a movie); and Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer (Just felt like reading this one again. Damn, he’s good). Most of you know I still read to my kids every night, and this month we read, for the fifth or sixth time, Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking (Funny, quirky, and occasionally heartbreaking).

Thank you to everyone who played here this month, and to my October guests: Karen Dionne, Gayle Lynds, Barry Eisler, and David Morrell. And thanks to all who linked to LitPark: Deep Thinker, ::Buddhastic::, ass backwords, She Shoots to Conquer: The Blog, maryanne stahl at her mac, Imagination in Flight, The Publishing Spot, Keyhole Blog, Notes From the Handbasket, Awake in a Peacock’s Dream, Koreanish, wordswimmer, A Writer and a Rider, Word of the Day, Notes from the Handbasket, Samantha Ling, camera-obscura, Darby Larson, Paperback Writer 2 – novelboy’s Blog, Red Room, MWA, ITW, Ellen Meister, and Backspace. I appreciate those links!

See you the first Monday of November!