WHAT DO THE books we read tell us about ourselves? I thought about this as I sat in Parnassus Books, writer Ann Patchett’s bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee, last Wednesday. In this most impressive bookstore where mobiles made of huge stars hang from the ceiling, I settled on a couch to narrow down my choices after the dog that works there barked at me.
This is a busy bookstore with families and bibliophiles coming and going. Who says people don’t read? The staff asks everyone in the checkout line where they are from because of how many tourists pass through.
The couch where I settled faced an entire wall of fiction, with one whole bookshelf filled with Ann Patchett’s books, the most popular being Bel Canto. I didn’t even venture over there. Although I mostly read e-books on Kindle readers, I bought five books – just to have the feeling I could support this famous bookstore. I also stayed to hear a reading in the evening, but that is a tale for another column.
The five books are:
1. Southern Writers on Writing, edited by Susan Cushman – I am always searching for creative collections of essays. I bought this collection because of the first paragraph in the introduction by Cushman. She wrote: In his book A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (published posthumously), the author Pat Conroy says, “My mother, Southern to the bone, once told me, ‘All Southern literature can be summed up in these words: ‘On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she hear what Daddy did to Sister.’’”
2. South and West by Joan Didion – Of late, I have decided Didion, a brilliant essayist, is my favourite writer because of her ability to elevate the essay to a literary work of art. It seems to me she invented her own way of using characterisation, conflict and dialogue to enhance the non-fiction form. Her ability to create a sense of suspense through structure is utterly brilliant. I plan to dissect her essays with coloured pens.
3. What Now? by Ann Patchett – I couldn’t venture into Parnassus and not buy a book by Patchett so I chose a small, hardcover book that featured a commencement address she gave at Sarah Lawrence College. Hopefully, I can create more meaningful addresses with this book as a model.
4. Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross MacDonald, edited and with an introduction by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan – I marvelled at this thick book of letters with nostalgia for the days when I used to wait for crisp blue aerogrammes from friends and family when I first moved to Trinidad. This book seems as though it will fill that void.
5. Delta Epiphany: Robert F Kennedy in Mississippi by Ellen B Meacham – I read a review about this book written by a journalist before I went to Nashville, and I got to hear the author do a reading so I needed to have this book.
I felt quite satisfied when I packed my stash into my Parnassus canvas tote bag because I had chosen the books that most suit my interests these days: non-fiction books that help me to understand the craft of writing on a whole new level.
Quite possibly this interest comes from the work I have been doing in prison and the study that my daughter, Ijanaya, did on reading preferences among inmates in the Port of Spain Prison. Her study backed up my observation that over 80 per cent of inmates prefer non-fiction, with history most preferred followed closely by biographies. Why, I wonder, is non-fiction writing so important to them?
I’ll just throw that thought out there for you to ponder until I come back to it in a future column – one that will speak of my book launch in the Port of Spain Prison for a history book titled Making Waves: How the West Indies Shaped the US.
I had planned to write a column about that book launch today, but I couldn’t yet find the words to convey how special that day was to me and everyone who attended.
My chosen books offer ways to process experiences in a whole new light. Some of these experiences – like letter writing – seem as though they can never be recaptured. Or can they? Is there anyone out there willing to write letters to each other again and rediscover what connections words can make?