Bookmark: In which a snobbish reader finds solace in popular books

I am picky about my books. I only get recommendations from people whose taste for literature I admire. I usually buy one book at a time, after careful consideration and consultation. And I carefully reread the vouchers – at least once, often two or three times – as soon as I have finished them. I read once for the story, once for the structure, once for the sheer poetry of beautifully written words.

But home ordering found me running out of new books, old books I hadn’t re-read recently, and the lucky recipient of a bag full of books.

A full grocery bag: the unit of measure for romance novels and romance novels.

Some friends were cleaning their shelves (a good thing to do in a pandemic) and wanted to know if I would take a look at what they were getting rid of.

“I’ll take them all!” Was my enthusiastic response – until I heard they were giving up seven grocery bags full of books.

We decided it would be safe to narrow it down to one bag and talked about titles. I was hoping for some biographies, the new Michael Ondaatje, maybe some John le Carré, some Alan Furst.

Said book bag arrived on my porch and, after letting them sit for the probably unnecessary three days, I took a look. No biographies or Ondaatje. Not even a le Carré or a Furst. Only authors and titles that I had never heard of.

It was in the early days of the shutdown. The weather was appalling and I had already washed the floors, walls and woodwork and still could not allay a nagging and indeterminate anxiety.

I didn’t have the guts to keep cleaning the house in a manic way and couldn’t get myself into another mindless chore (who cares about that damn spice rack?). Even the creative pursuits I thought I would immerse myself in (the quilting I had started months ago, maybe) just didn’t appeal to me.

And so I reached into the grocery bag, grabbed the book from the top of the stack, and started reading.

And kept reading.

I read without turning the corners of the pages to mark meaningful passages, without stopping to savor sentences, without reading aloud (out of context, of course) to my husband as he walked across the room.

I didn’t wait for a book to settle in, revisit my favorite characters or replay the plot in my head, checking the holes, before starting another.

Three days and five pounds later, I quit, cold turkey.

I felt like I was stepping out of junk food, as if my normal salad lover had eaten nothing but Diet Coke and crisps.

Books weren’t bad, really. They were light and sweet, a mix of enlightened and not-so-exciting thrillers. The written equivalent of easy listening. And I had discovered a few authors (including Tash Aw) that I would like to know more about. But for the most part, they had been mundane and indistinguishable.

And strangely heartwarming.

Crouching down on my couch and reading nonstop had taught me something: it was OK to read just for the sake of reading.

About a week later, I heard from the friends who had given me the books. They wanted to know if I still had them and if I could return them. Looks like they gave me the wrong bag.

They have another bag waiting for me. The books I’ve been waiting for, the ones I know I’ll read and re-read.

I can’t wait to have them deposited on my porch, can’t wait to read them. But I hope there’s some nerdy thriller or even a bodice ripper in the mix.

I’ll always love the salad, but it’s not too bad to have the crispy palate cleanser every now and then.

Connie Nelson is a writer for the Star Tribune.

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