Book Club

Reading, Elasticity, and the Greater Than / Less Than Equation.

By: Jen Shoop

While home in D.C. two weeks ago, my father had me go through the twenty thousand books of mine gathering dust in their garage, plying me with promises that “it would only take a few minutes.”  And he was dutiful in keeping pace: every time I’d linger over a book, flipping through its pages to scoff or nod my head with unanticipated approbation at my tiny, hyper-neat notes in the marginalia, or cocking my head in nostalgia over a tattered cover, he’d interrupt: “pitch or keep?”  In this fashion, we made good time in sorting through several hundred books.  I took a hard line on textbooks, placing those in the “donate” pile, but had a tougher time sifting through my childhood books, especially the ones that fell into the “not great literature” category, but bore intense sentimental value for me.  Seeing my collection of yellowed Little House on the Prairie books, my Boxcar Children series, my Nancy Drews, my Ann of Green Gables, brought to mind a tumble of linked memories that had nothing to do with one another except for the quiet-cool feel of my childhood home in the summertime, the click-on-click-off of the air conditioner, the sward of long, shadowed hallway that led from the second floor landing to my bedroom, the solemnity and hush of my southeast-facing room when I’d lay on my stomach on my floral bedspread, reading.  Those books mediated my experience of the world, ordered it: I assumed for many years that adult life was a sequence of mysteries and resolutions, cliff hangers and happy endings, and the catalysts for those ebbs and flows were not the curiosities of fate but the willful enterprises of a strong heroine, or a heroine and her siblings.  Perhaps all children feel this certainty about things; perhaps it is the province of parenthood to establish and reaffirm an order to life.  But then I started to lose my grandparents, and — this is hard to write, but truthful — though I missed them, it was not so much their absence as my parents reaction to it that mottled my crisp worldview.  When my mother’s father died, I accidentally caught a glimpse of her crying into my father’s shirt in his study via a barely ajar door.  I knew I shouldn’t have pried, and was sorry I had: the vision startled and scared me, and had the feel of trespass.  My mother was kind, warm, loving — and composed.  She would occasionally brush away a tear at the sight of something tender, but this — this was a different kind of crying, a wounded crying.  When my father’s mother died not too long after, we were seated at the long, elegant table in my parents’ formal dining room, and my mother had just served us scoops of ice cream for dessert when my father said, without warning:

“Your grandmother died today.”

His lip tightened in an expression I’d never seen before.  I didn’t know how to respond; I was too young and self-absorbed to offer comfort, but horrified at the prospect of this new, sorrowful expression on my father’s face.  I stared down at the melting pool of ice cream and tears streamed down my face.  I asked to be excused.

From my bedroom upstairs, I watched my father cross the circle of asphalt driveway to the crest of a hill that sloped down to Linnean Avenue, the hill he’d taught us to sled on, the hill he’d perilously traverse in his ride-along tractor, often swearing at stall-outs or debris, the hill he’d told us not to play ball around because they’d inevitably wind up in the street.  He paused and turned his face upward.  It was odd to see my father outside and not in motion, not in service of an errand — not taking out the trash, or en route to the wood shed, or with an armful of gardening supplies, or with a bottle of Neatsfoot oil and my brother’s ball glove in hand.  It took me a minute to discern what was happening; maybe he had heard a plane, or seen a bird?  But no — he was standing still, looking up at the sky, in what I can only imagine was a gesture of prayer, or quiet communion with his now deceased mother, or wonderment.

That evening, as with countless others to come, I took comfort in the escape of fiction, but something had changed.  I now saw a disparity, a widening gulf.  I felt that I had seen something in real life that could never be approximated on a page, that would be illicit or impossible in the world of fiction.  I realized, for the first time, that whereas I had formerly seen the magical worlds of Ann and Nancy and Laura as greater than my own, the “right arrow” in the equation had flipped: I now saw my own experience outsizing theirs.

The arrow’s direction has flipped and flopped with time, with the quality of books I am reading, with the relative quietude or amplitude of the happenings in my life.  There are stretches where I find myself drinking in the experiences I am reading in a hungry spectatorship, anxious for the thrill or drama of another world; and there are other times where I feel that everything I am reading is a footnote or a corollary to the enormity of my own life.  There are times where the words of others seem to negotiate the terms of an experience — like when I saw that lilac bush while walking along the northside of Sheep Meadow and my day was instantly transformed via the magic of a poem it conjured — but there are other times where everything I read is adjunct to the swell and swing of my own emotions.  And I am grateful for this give-and-take, this elastic relationship I have had with fiction as it alternately fuels and receives my soul.


10 books that will change your life.

I love the look of a color-coordinated book shelf — many visitors to my apartment ask whether I specifically purchase books for their spine colors (!!! ha!), but the truth is that I own so many books, I can afford to be choosy about which are displayed.  (Also, secret hack: consider removing the book jacket cover; often the hardcover has a different color and can look rather elegant sans robe!)  But some other shortcuts: browse Etsy for collections of vintage books, like Harvard Classics box sets or Classics Club volumes.  Or, if you’re not into the rustic look, consider this pretty, colorful Jane Austen set or any of these Juniper book sets.  I personally love the staid olive green of this George Eliot collection, principally and smugly because it includes Daniel Deronda, an important but admittedly overlong and overwrought piece of literature, the quality of which my sister and I routinely and volubly debate.

More musings on the life raft of literature.

I love the understated simplicity of this white ballcap from Everlane.  So chic with jeans and a white tee or an oxford.

I rarely buy knock-offs, but this is a pretty darn good dupe for the Lisa Marie Fernandez dress I’ve had my eye on!

This brand of shoes, made from recycled waterbottles, is getting a lot of buzz — and their marketing is EVERYWHERE.  I like these ones, which look like needlepoint!

Love this two-piece set, which evoke a Talented Mr. Ripley vibe for me.

Neiman’s is running a great sale, including lots of heavily discounted Luli + Me dresses for your babe: I love this and this.

Chic storage.

Unexpectedly sexy dress.

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10 thoughts on “Reading, Elasticity, and the Greater Than / Less Than Equation.

  1. I just teared up reading this, because I have never related to something so much.
    Full disclosure – I saw your post on instagram with an excerpt from this as caption, and I thought it was an excerpt from a book you’d read. I came to this post eager to purchase whatever book it was, only to realize it was YOUR writing! I shouldn’t be surprised – your writing always blows me away.
    But as I live in NYC and travel South to visit my sweet grandparents of diminishing health, and as I also sort through my massive book collection as my parents prepare to downsize, I have to say – I feel you. On all of the above. And thank you for writing it.

    1. Oh, Crawford — so glad you found this, and so glad it reached you at the right time. Words have a way of doing that. Sending you love on this visit. xoxo

  2. Oof! It is so hard for me to get rid of books too!! I have tons in storage in our garage and in my parents’ garage as well. I suppose at some point I’ll have to cull the piles, but it’s a task I am avoiding right now. I love, as always, how you’ve captured the sentiment (as well as catching your parents in their more private moments) – so beautifully written!

  3. This is my favorite blog post I have ever read. You put words to an experience that completely share but had never been fully aware of and certainly had never put into words. This is very meaningful to me. Really well done. You have a true gift.

    1. Thank you so much for this kind note, Andrea — I’m so glad it resonated with you, and so flattered by your reaction. Thank you for reading, and for taking the time to let me know. xo

  4. This could be in the running as my favorite of your posts – it’s thoughtful, brilliant! I had never thought of reading in that way, but you are spot-on. Gosh I loved Ann of Green Gables! And the moment when adulthood rushed at me was also when my father’s father died – and I heard my own father cry the same cry you described from your mother. Never had a heard it before or have since. It was the first time I thought of my parents as HUMAN – vulnerable and susceptible to pain. It’s not an easy revelation to bear but a necessary one. The other revelation is that one day, we’ll too lose our parents, and sometimes that thought pains in me in worse ways (even though they drive me insane sometimes – oh, families!).

    I need to go through and purge some books before I move..and have been avoiding it as I am not sure I can part with some! But maybe if I motivate myself with the idea that those I take with me, I can color-coordinate on some Crate and Barrel shelves 😉

    1. Hi April! Thank you so much — you know, your note made me think a bit more critically about those moments of grief I observed, and you are completely right: it was all about seeing my parents as “vulnerable and susceptible to pain” versus my vision of them as unimpeachably perfect and in control.

      Anyway, thank you so much here and as always for taking the time to let me know you appreciated this post. Encouragement to continue writing in this lane!


  5. “I felt that I had seen something in real life that could never be approximated on a page, that would be illicit or impossible in the world of fiction. I realized, for the first time, that whereas I had formerly seen the magical worlds of Ann and Nancy and Laura as greater than my own, the “right arrow” in the equation had flipped: I now saw my own experience outsizing theirs.” — this is beautiful, and this — “I am grateful for this give-and-take, this elastic relationship I have had with fiction as it alternately fuels and receives my soul.” — I love this! You put into words what many of us feel about reading.

    Don’t know how I missed that Everlane ball cap, but I love it — the white looks so fresh and would be a great replacement for my white New York Lawn Bowling Club ball cap, which has yellowed quite a bit in recent years!

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