American Culture

A WordsDay Special: 25+ Books in 30+ Days

So I crammed all those books into my head, and as I suspected, I can’t stop. I’m still cramming, still trying to slip just a few more books under my brain. It’s not that I need to. I want to. That’s what too much reading will do to you: it’ll make you want to read more. (Well, at least that’s how it goes with me.)

But because I’m getting close to exam time, I’m trying to concentrate more on the reading, with less time for writing about the books as I go. So, these will be brief:

Bryson, Bill. I’m a Stranger Here Myself. (1999) — A little glib goes a long way. That’s how I felt by the time I reached the end of Bryson’s collected columns, written for an English newspaper after moving back to America following a 20-year sojourn abroad. Any one column was great, and Bryson frequently made me laugh out loud. The book was chucklicious. But it was also a little much, perhaps because the columns were short and, by their nature, jumped from topic to topic, which made the overall feel of the book a little manic. Had I spaced the book out over a few weeks and read just a few entries at a time, I’m sure Bryson’s charm and droll humor would’ve worked for me much, much better (because, let’s face it, the guy is hilarious!). I can see myself giving the book one of those “It’s not you, it’s me” speeches.

Gilman, Susan Jane. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. (2009) — I picked this up because it was a travelogue about two college graduates who decide to backpack across China in the mid-1980s. “Hey, let’s be Odysseus,” she and her friend decide. “Let’s be Byron. Let’s be Don Quixote, Huck Finn, and Jack Kerouac all rolled into one—except with lip gloss.” Their story turned out to be funny, tragic, interesting, and gripping. Gilman pulled me in quick, and I didn’t want to put the book not (not that I had the leisure to even if I wanted to). Gilman’s book has pitch-perfect pacing, and it reads like a good novel even though it’s nonfiction. “God knows I couldn’t make this up,” she says in her author’s note. Her post-9/11 perspective as a writer (and a more experienced traveler) gives the book extra resonance.

Kingsolver, Barbara. High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never. (1995) — This collection of essays was so good I don’t even know where to begin with it. Only a few of her essays focused specifically on place (my reason for reading), but those that do made me feel like I was in the crater of Hawaii’s dormant volcano Haleakala or in a crowded village in the African country of Benin or along the banks of Horse Lick Creek in the mountains of Kentucky. Cumulatively, Kingsolver captures what it means to be human—or should mean, anyway. “It’s starting to look as if the most shameful tradition of Western civilization is out need to deny we are animals,” she writes. The book is a paean to curiosity and wonder. “I have taught myself joy, over and over again,” she says. I constantly found myself highlighting passages, making notes, copying quotes. Kingsolver’s essays are so rich. In the final accounting,” she writes,” a hundred different truths are likely to reside at any given address.” A hundred different truths—and more—reside in this collection. Kingsolver might be the great discovery of this entire reading project.