In my mid-twenties, I grew anxious when I realised that I often couldn’t recall much about the books I’d read. This seemed to me a great character flaw: why would I spend my waking hours reading, if the knowledge I gained soon vanished? In a desperate attempt to fix books more firmly in my brain, I began to draft short summaries as I finished each one. (This effort soon devolved into an iPhone list of ‘Books I’ve Read’ and has now become an even lazier Goodreads list, which does not even bother to use the star-rating system provided.)
I was therefore relieved to learn that my inability to recall a book’s detail does not render the act of reading a senseless waste, because the books I’ve read have imprinted ‘wraiths of memory’ in my neural pathways (I can’t vouch for the credibility of this pop neuroscience, but it’s reassuring nonetheless). I’ve since taken to picturing the recesses of my brain as a vast library, dimly lit and wood-panelled, where the books I’ve read lurk, dusty and forgotten, until the Librarian—a stern figure who’s always shushing me, drowning out my protests that I am the sole patron of my library—is summoned to fetch a particular title and lend it out to my consciousness. I thought it might be worth making the trip down to these archives to see where the Librarian has shelved my latest reads.
She catalogued John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, a tale of precocious kids with cancer that possesses an awkward charm and oodles of heartbreak, in a section marked ‘NSFPT’ (‘not safe for public transport’). The Fault in Our Stars nudges spines with Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Jostein Gaarder’s The Orange Girl, because I found them all difficult to finish through my cascading tears. This section’s naming rights go to April Fool’s Dayby Bryce Courtenay, which I once unwisely chose as reading matter for my morning commute. The title made me anticipate the recounting of a hilarious prank (perhaps Courtenay’s punking of fellow author Di Morrissey about her position on the bestseller charts). Instead, I was assaulted by the harrowing memoir of Courtenay’s haemophiliac son dying of AIDS, and my fellow train-travellers edged away from me as I wiped my snotty nose on my sleeve, not having foreseen the need for tissues.
The Librarian never leaves her watchful post in my brain, which means she organises the library based on my idiosyncrasies. (It’s a similar method to the autobiographical system that Nick Hornby’s protagonist uses to order his record collection in High Fidelity.) She has created a small shelf for books my husband has recommended to me. It’s small partly because he reads fewer books than me, and partly because our reading tastes don’t have much overlap. He reads more post-apocalyptic fiction than me and recently recommended Justin Cronin’s The Passage, a suspenseful epic that kept me transfixed for a week, feverishly demolishing chapters whenever I had five minutes to spare. Other titles on this shelf are ones I would never have picked up if left to my own browsing: the excellent graphic novel series Fables by Bill Willingham and The Unwritten by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. He also handed me the keys to the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy by Guy Gavriel Kay (comprising The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road), which is the furthest I’ve ever ventured into the world of adult high fantasy. It was a fun world to visit, but I won’t be moving in.
Short stories are a rather obvious and bland-sounding category in my library, but I agree with the Librarian’s reasons for keeping them together. Despite their vast differences in content, these bundles of story fragments all give me the sense that I’m peering into a microcosm of our world, a snow globe that, when shaken, will reveal the workings of human nature. With Alice Munro’sRunaway, this microcosm is ponderous and devastating in its depiction of women who yearn to escape their current lives; with Jennifer Mills’s The Rest Is Weight, place—whether a dusty Australian highway or an eerie Beijing street—is an essential element of the characters’ experiences. I read Josephine Rowe’s stunning Tarcutta Wake as a series of deep pools, where plunging into each one would immerse me in an overpowering emotion. And George Saunders’s Tenth of December reminded me of the great need for empathy in our flawed and often harsh society.
The Librarian may be traditional in her shushing methods, but she’s not averse to multimedia. As my alter ego the Book Tuner, I match books to music that evokes a similar mood, which has inspired the Librarian to store these books and albums together, ensuring that they remain melded in my mind. I will never listen to Thao & Mirah’s self-titled album without recalling the quirkiness that is Miranda July’s collection of stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You; and whenever I hear Sufjan Stevens’s Illinois, I picture Philippe Petit wobbling on the high-wire strung between the Twin Towers, as he was so elegantly captured by Colum McCann in Let the Great World Spin. I find that pairing a book with music boosts my memory of that book’s content, or at least tells me how I felt while I was reading it. For more concrete details of the books I’ve read, please direct all queries to the Librarian.