My book shelves are my growth chart. In the back are the paperbacks with bent spines, prizes from library summer reading clubs. Beloved children’s books - Ella Enchanted and Tale of Desperaux and Chronicles of Narnia and Winnie the Pooh – are stacked up against tattered, used classics bought with babysitting money – aspirational purchases with my name dug into the first page in pen.
In high school, I printed one of those lists of “100 Books Everyone Should Read” and streamrolled through it indescriminately: Pride and Prejuduce, 1984, Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, To Kill a Mockingbird, I read books that were brilliant and books I didn’t remotely understand, and any time I found a copy in a used book store or at a yard sale, I bought it and put it on my shelf like a trophy.
I kept every book I bought for college, apart from the textbooks for the handful of math and science classes I had to take. I read deeper and wider and my collection grew – the economics of India, the effects of mass incarceration, the history of Genghis Khan and novel after novel after fascinating novel.
I didn’t take any of those books with me, in the end. Instead, I packed a Spanish-English Bible and a Spanish-English dictionary and went to New-to-You and bought a stack of 50-cent paperbacks to slip between clothes and notebooks and shampoo.
I read the first, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, in one long sitting in the Minneapolis airport waiting for the next flight after the one I had missed. I ate airport Chick-fil-a and tried to remember if there was anything I had forgotten to pack or anything I had forgotten to say to the people I wouldn’t see for a year. When I finished it, I wrote myself a note: “Engrossing and intriguing. High on prose at times and heady; detail-stuffed, but lyric.” Then I left the book on an airport seat and boarded my flight.
I read the next few books compulsively, almost wastefully. I settled into the words and they settled into me. The books I brought were odd choices, maybe, but already their words roll through my head tinged with the flavor of tamal and tamarindo.
I read Home by Marilynne Robinson the first week after I moved into my room in Tegucigalpa, in the evenings, when I was too tired to carry on more conversations, but not tired enough to sleep. I read about small-town Iowa to the sound of the reguetón music thumping next door, to the smell of tortillas cooking. I let the book’s depth and gentleness, its lessons of inexplicable grace settle into me, and then I went to bed.
I read A Pale View of Hills by Kashuo Ishiguri on the weekends when my weekends were still empty. The book, too, had a curious hollowness, a skillful skirting of the real story that was creepy and engrossing.
I read A Fine Balance by Rohington Mistry in the quiet moments of a team retreat in La Ceiba. The 600-page epic knocked me flat every time I opened it, and in the evenings, I would ask Jonathan, who’s from West Bengal, how much of it was true. We sat by the river and talked about castes and politics and history. I finished the book on the long bus ride from La Ceiba to Tegucigalpa and closed it gently at the end, only able to look, melancholy, out of the window at the campo.
I read James McBride’s The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother when I had not spoken to my own mother for nearly six weeks, a combination of faulty internet and missed communication. I cried a little at the end, more because it was beautiful than it was sad, and because I know what it is like to have a mother who cares so completely that her children succeed that everything else in life is secondary.
I read The End of the Affair by Graham Greene on a day trip to a local picturesque city. I went alone, and tried to read on the jittery school bus, squeezed as I was between a couple fondling each other and a basket of corn. It was lonely, a little, to walk the city alone, so I sat in the central park and read.
I finished the hauntingly human little novel in a cathedral, away from the rain that had started to drizzle. There were people in front of me on their knees, their lips moving silently. The light through the stained-glass windows had just begun to fade. I read to the last sentence – “O God, You’ve done enough. You’ve robbed me of enough. I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.” I closed the book and took a mototaxi home.