One of my favorite parts of starlet interviews is the inevitable “guilty pleasures” question, where the blazing new talent confesses to a weakness for lettuce dipped in mustard, or gluten-free pretzels crumbled into her daily cup of Pinkberry.
Along with the million other reasons I’m not a starlet, this is certainly one. Cheez-Its and black coffee, my favorite bad-for-me-treat, just doesn’t pass muster for a worthy response to a serious question like that. And besides, I never feel guilty about those few times I year I manage to get my mitts on this perfect combo, only happy.
While I’m not much for food-related guilt, I can totally identify with the same concept when applied to reading. For one thing, there’s the gluttony problem. I come by it honestly – I inherited it from my mother, who used to stay up all night to finish the latest bestseller when she finally got it on request from the library. She would greet me shamefaced in the morning, confessing that she’d stayed up all night and read the whole thing. Her regret was always great. “I just gobbled it up like a big hog,” she would wail, “and now I have nothing to read!”
She passed the addiction down to me, and poor Mary Katherine struggles mightily against it, but more successfully. I am often impressed to hear her say of a book she loves, “It’s really good, so I’m pacing myself – no more than 25 pages a night.” Oh Mary, how I wish I had your grit.
In addition to the gluttony, there’s also my problem with repetition. It started with that Golden Book version of Little Women, which I reread at least once a year, letting myself sob good and hard when (spoiler alert) Beth died.
According to Google's advanced algorithms, there are currently nearly 130 million books in the world (129,864,880, to be exact), and there are more than 300,000 new titles published in the United States every year. With numbers that staggering, it could seem just plain wasteful to go back and read something that’s already been read. I suppose it is, but only if reading is considered to be nothing more than information taken in, the way the abstemious equate food with calories needed to sustain life. I might be a book glutton, but I’m also a book gourmet, and I think there’s always room for a little savoring, especially when I am most in need of the literary equivalent of comfort food.
This past fall, I found myself confronting the sudden death of a friend, and my commitment to give back-to-back eulogies at memorials that were being held for him in two different cities on two consecutive weekends. One of the very first things I did when I realized what I was about to embark upon was to visit the library website and call up some of my favorites from Angela Thirkell’s WWII-era Barsetshire series. I traveled to those funerals with a couple of the rattiest, most recovered hardbacks on the planet, ones that still had the circulation cards tucked into little pockets in the back. But I also traveled with Mrs. Brandon, Lord Pomfret, David Leslie and Hampton and Bent, the alcoholic lesbian couple who are possibly my two favorite characters in all of literature. These ladies rename their dogs every couple of weeks, always for a valiant general from the latest brave little country that the Nazis have invaded. They struggle with Finnish, but prevail. And they love their gin, but good.
I found, as I settled into bed post-eulogy (twice), that I wasn't so much experiencing reading, as in spending some time with kind, comforting friends. When I think about my best friends, I already pretty much know what they are going to say and do before they do it, so the residents of Barsetshire are not all that different.
I still felt sad when I finished my funeral duties, so I called out the big showbiz guns and reread Moss Hart’s 1959 autobiography, Act One. Yes, I had read it twice before. I knew that he’d eventually rise from poverty, meet George S. Kaufman, and write the smash hit Once in a Lifetime. But it was fun, for a while, to pretend that it all might turn out differently.
Come to think of it, I might get out my copy of Little Women tomorrow. Maybe, just maybe, this will be the time that (spoiler alert) Beth lives.