Book Ends: A Year Between the Covers
Naomi Beth Wakan
Hamilton: Poplar Press, 2010
Read from a review copy.
This book is deceptively simple. Organized in 12 chapters named for each of the twelve months that the book covers, Wakan’s book strolls through a year of reading, but also of gardening, hosting, teaching, running errands, and minding the world. Her narrative pace is slow and her essays meander, but they belie a breakneck reading pace. I don’t know how the library on Gabriola Island keeps her stocked because she and her husband go through 20 books a week. The island, its library and her book box, the old milk crate in which she keeps her books to be read, become characters in their own right, and the books she reads are always firmly tethered to the context in which she reads them. These are familiar essays, and while the pace of the individual chapters may be easy, Wakan, in her late seventies, has more than 30 books of poetry and non-fiction to her credit. She reads and writes at a fantastic pace, but none of that urgency appears here. On the pages of this book, she is relaxed company.
What I like best about Wakan’s book is that she knows that there are more prolific writers, more voracious and up-to-date readers out there, and, after acknowledging that there are other ways of being, she is unapologetic about the kind of writer and reader that she is.
I have been reading a book entitled 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (general editor–Peter Boxall) and, of course, it filled me with guilt and remorse. What have I been doing with my life that I have probably not read more than one third of the books included? … Reading [it] left me with the feeling that I would like to have written a novel. … But that is not to be, for here I am, yet once more, turning out yet one more little essay about books and writers and, do you know, having recovered from reading the summaries of one thousand and one books by triumphant (and often alcoholic and suicidal) authors, I am quite content to have my life running this way.
I was pleasantly surprised by how many books about books she discusses. My beloved Ex Libris and 84 Charing Cross Road are among more than 30 books about books and author biographies and autobiographies. It’s a veritable goldmine of bibliophilic reading. I had seen the title of Pierre Bayard’s book, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, and dismissed it as flippant, but she calls it the best book of her reading year. I’m sold. I am doing a reading challenge based on 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, the 1% well-read challenge, so Wakan’s book also had the added bonus of being a book about my reading challenges.
Wakan gently points me to the truth that not all the books we bring home have to be fiction or bibliophilic. She reads books about math and makes them sound compelling. This is not an easy thing to do. Lots of books about gardening, too, as she and her husband attempt a zero-mile diet by growing almost all of their own food. Also not an easy thing to do.
As you will have noticed from my April entries, I often prefer reading about gardening to actually doing it, so while making my garden to-do list, I began to once more think about garden writing and folks who do it.
Michael Pollan points out so nicely that writing and gardening are both ways of rendering the world in rows.
I’ve just wandered home from the bookstore with Merilyn Simond’s A New Leaf: Growing with My Garden tucked under my arm and am looking forward to its rows on rows.