My bedside library slouches around the base of the small silver lamp on my nightstand. The New Yorker is to blame. Four issues, each only partially read. One still shrink-wrapped. They are too large. Their covers too slippery. In the pile, they move whole inches at the slightest jostle. Sandstone. The wrong foundation for this mound of literature. But I cannot tuck them away on the shelf yet. James Wood's review of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch in the current issue refuses to be neglected that way. I also flag the best pieces, ones that resonate personally or strike me as prime material for teaching someday. Keeping the Faith: Egypt's preachers after the crackdown by Peter Hessler (Oct. 7) requires such a flag. Then I'll put the magazines away. I promise.
Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time and a slim, white volume of poetry by T.S. Eliot rest lightly atop the rest. I finished In Our Time weeks ago now, but I can't put it back on the shelf yet. The brutality of its passages about wartime, the bloody pilgrimages and hoary revelations about man's character, stick like burs to my brain. No, I need it in arm's reach for a while. Before he was Papa, Hemingway was a young man with a machete-pen and a raw, stark way of looking at the world. Everyone has a beginning. Every author has a first book. So, it sits there, reminding me when I roll to the left and open my eyes first thing in the morning that I've got a first book waiting within me.
Eliot's poetry, too, has been finished (if one can ever truly finish reading a poem). I picked it up at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris on my last trip. Last week, it was my bath time book. Light as the bubbles in the tub, I drank the whole thing in a single soak. Prufrock, yes, but other meditations on life, aging, family, society, poverty, and play also. It is here among the rest of the nightstand mess because, warm and blushing from the bath, I wandered straight to bed and fell fast asleep without remembering much that came between. My poetry shelf in the office is too disorganized to welcome Eliot anyway. So, he'll stay.
Beneath these are volumes in-process. Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation , one of those long, lusty biographies with an overwhelming amount of good information, so much I can only open it to trudge forward once in a great while. Also Tess of the D'Ubervilles , because I somehow made it through the English program at UC Davis without ever reading Hardy, and it shames me. Also Anne Lamott's Help Thanks Wow . Three essential prayers. It should have been a quick read, a quasi-philosophic romp, like everything else Lamott has written and I have enjoyed. Alas, my writing plans for November have me seeking a heavier brand of dogma for inspiration. I will return to the golden lining of Lamott's pages later, when I am in need of simple comfort and encouragement, inevitably, once again.
Ender's Game is the odd one in a line-up of usual suspects. Science fiction and YA. It is one of my husband's favorites, and because the movie will come out soon, I have promised to read it first. A promise I still hope to keep, though I remain innately reluctant.
Unfortunately, it will have to wait a while longer because I have begun reading Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl , a book which sparked a flame of word-of-mouth that met me on two continents. Easily ten different people have recommended this novel to me. A psychological thriller, Gone Girl was long-listed for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction (previously the Orange Prize) this year, and spent eight weeks at the top of the NYT Best Seller's list. I am notoriously wary of popular fiction of this ilk, but a friend brought a banged-up copy of the book to our last writing group session, so I borrowed it. I ended my thriller phase in high school, but will maintain an open mind. The voices in Gone Girl so far are new and fast and easy to ride down the rapids.
The Kindle is a library of its own. Brilliant books checked off my list remain in the table of contents. From this year alone: The Lowland (Lahiri) and The Handmaid's Tale (Atwood) and The Paris Wife (Mclain) and Pulphead: Essays (Sullivan) and North of Hope (Polson) and Atonement (McEwan). My current Kindle read is I am Malala , a memoir by activist and Nobel Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai. Her very existence on this earth gives me hope and makes me proud. She has written a fresh, burning book condemning the Taliban in Pakistan and promoting peace and equal rights for Muslim girls and women. It is the kind of necessary writing I admire.
And then there are the comfort books. Long ago reads and re-reads. Works that soothe me or inspire me or remind me of the kind of writing I want to be capable of. Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible is one. Diana Athill's Instead of a Letter is another. Depending on my mood, I will stand before my bookcases and reach for these well-worn copies, will pull them down so that their neighbors collapse toward one another in the void left behind, will page through to something I need to hear.
"She did not mind things which ought to shine not shining, and she did not mind 'clean' dirt (earth, grass seeds, spilt dog biscuit). While there was a carelessly arranged vase of flowers on every surface flat enough to hold a vase, she felt her drawing-room pretty, and so it was. It smelt lovely, too, more like a garden than a room, and since most of its untidiness came from the litter of books on chair arms, foot-stools, and occasional tables, it was an agreeable room to be in."
Thus, I am in an English manor library littered with books. Had I selected Willa Cather's My Antonia , another comfort read, I might have found myself rolling in the red grass of the prairie. Either way, I am transported in a few sentences and able to carry on with my present day. That's reading.
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