Last week, on a particularly grey wednesday, I had a harp lesson at 4’o’clock and a gig I was going to at 8, so I decided to while away the harpless between-hours at the bookshop around the corner from Berklee, on Newbury Street.
After three years studying Literature (with a big L) at university, I am still overwhelmed and overjoyed to be aboard the good ship ‘Choose What You Want to Read, and It Doesn’t Really Matter What You Make of It, Just Have a Jolly Time.’ (Big flag)
I spent about half an hour pottering about the shelves, partly for aimless pleasure, and partly to put care into my selection, so as to maximise my jollity.
My criteria for choosing a book were as follows:
- Classics that I’ve always been meaning to read but never got around to, were out, for today. Hasta la Vista Dostoyevsky, and Buh-bye Bröntes. And no guilt trips allowed, thank you VERY much, Mill on the Floss (if in fact that is your real name).
- A criterion of a similar ilk: no crummy attempts at self-improvement. One day, I may learn French, commit to memory the difference between Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns AND discover how to make all varieties of smoothie for a happier, healthier me, but this was not the day. Titles like ‘The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean my Closets, Fight right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun’ were DEFINITELY out.
- I wanted fiction. Preferably a novel.
- And a jammy one at that.
- It had to be something new (to me, not necessarily new to the world).
I idled a while around my favourite authors, cozying up to familiar titles. So comfortable, these old friends! But this is my problem with [not] being well-read. I often shy away from the term ‘well-read’, not only because I consider it to be both tricksy and entirely relative term, and therefore relatively meaningless, but also because I am secretly certain that I am not well-read. I blame this largely on my love of re-reading, which means that the books I have read, have certainly been read well (does that count? ‘Oh, she’s well read, that one!’ - if said in a Northern accent could pass for a glowing reference, in a pinch) but those that I haven’t read, well and truly, or even at all, are far greater in number. This is obviously the case for everybody - Coleridge, I believe, was the last person who claimed to have read everything, and even then it was a bold claim - but by far greater, I mean FAR greater. Again, I am lost in the mires of relativity. Oh well. ‘KBO’ as Churchill would say, and as many members of the Herman Family would repeat delightedly: Keep Buggering On.
So there I was, hovering around Dave Eggers, wrestling with my impulse to sink into the blissful familiarity of his short stories, when I spotted Jennifer Egan, sitting snugly beside him. I’d never heard of her before (shame on me. Or maybe not so much. No guilt trips allowed, remember?) which played no small part in her appeal.
There was also the gold ‘Winner of the Pulitzer Prize’ sticker, winking shinily at me from the front cover of ‘a visit from the goon squad’. The title tickled me, the cover was jangling with critical acclaim, and the book was of a good girth (an underrated quality in book choosing, I feel).
There was also something in the LA Times’ accolade ‘The smartest book you can get your hands on’, that felt almost like a challenge. I guess the combination of ’can’, implying permission, with the suggestion of a prize (to get your hands on something connotes a struggle, right? Or an ability, an opportunity…
I CAN get my hands on it! Look, look LA Times! Here I am - with my hands on it! Regard my grubby little paws, they could not be more on this book if they tried!
(It’s ok, my paws were only a bit bicycle-chain-and-subway-grubby, AND I bought the book, so it’s really no biggie, LA Times.)
So without further ado, (well, there may have been a BIT more ado. A little ado. Dr. ado-little. Except rather than talking to animals, I was just minding my own business, and looking at books. That said, I’m sure if this particular jaunt were to be made into a film - and what a film! - Rex Harrison or Eddie Murphy would do a fine job of playing me) I bought the book.
After a bit of light back-and-forth with the lovely man at the till (my faithful, but garish backpack is always a talking point amongst the world’s more garrulous folk) I got myself a table and ordered the biggest sandwich I could imagine (it’s called the Cape Codder, and if you’re ever in the area, I heart(attack)ily recommend it. Can you go wrong with MASSIVE wedges of grilled Challah, turkey, cheese and bacon? No, good sir and/or madam, you cannot) and some sort of delicious fruit juice.
So anyway, there I was, nibbling away merrily on my stonker sandwich, and getting stuck into my new book.
There’s nothing better than reading the first few pages of a new book and realising that you’re having a great time. This realisation is often a little, glimmering minnow of a feeling, because it is, in my experience, more of a non-thought, than a thought. That is, rather than thinking ‘Am I enjoying this?’ ‘How does this character make me feel?’ ‘Do I like that person?’ ‘Should I like this person?’ ‘What’s THAT metaphor all about?’ and so on, the soothing absence of the running narrative (usually panting and sweaty) usually heralds a total and immersive sense of enjoyment and engagement.
Or so I thought.
I had decided to spend the evening taking a break from my harp-shaped life. I wanted to spend a pocket of time eating a delicious sandwich (which came with a PICKLE! Sometimes the gods are generous) and reading a book about which I had no preconceptions, and in which I could submerge myself, allowing thoughts, of whatever flavour, to marinate in peace.
I had spent that morning practising the harp, the night before, practising the harp. The night before that… and so it goes. That day I had rode the subway listening to harp music in preparation for my lesson. Then, my harp lesson - very harp-related. It was a great lesson and I left feeling buoyant and full of resolve and plans for long-term improvement and, in the shorter-term, my next practice session. But all this could wait one evening.
So imagine my surprise when, near the top of page seven, I read this:
…a set of goals she’d scrawled on a big sheet of newsprint and taped to the walls of her early apartments:
Find a band to manage
Understand the news
Practice the harp
I know it’s a cliché, but I think my heart really did skip a beat.
I looked again, just to check (at the book, not my heart).
The story so far had been about a date and the therapy sessions of a lady who was also a kleptomaniac. I felt fairly secure that I was exploring unfamiliar territory, not knowing, waiting to be told…
There was no lead up to this.
Perhaps if the cover had been this one (below), I might have divined some intimation of music-shaped things to come. The guitar even looks a bit like a lyre. There’s a bit near the end about Orpheus and Euridice, so maybe that was intentional. Maybe THAT’s the point! Hmm. But I digress, THIS is not my point, nor was it the cover I had seen.
The cover I saw was this:
Looks fun, exciting, bold, not harp-related in any way, good girth, and so on.
And sure, it was an innocuous detail. A throwaway designed, presumably, to add texture to the character. (Or maybe not! see Orpheus revelation above)
But this tiny, deft touch of shading (ditto) really made me wonder if I had lost my mind.
I looked again at the page.
I took a mind-clearing bite of my sandwich, then allowed my eyes to drift casually back to the book. It was a bit like playing ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’. You know, that very slow turn and peer? Except instead of trying the thwart the approach of giggling children, I was turning, slowly, expecting to find full-blown insanity tapping me on the shoulder, giggling.
This is one of the rarer situations when it’s weird to be on your own. When reading a new book, and a tiny reference to playing the harp forces you to question your sanity. In these situations, it’s handy to have a second opinion (just so you know for next time). I considered seeking the counsel of the friendly looking man at the table near mine, but it’s actually quite difficult to phrase ‘Hey, can you just tell me if these words on this page are, as I believe them to be, referencing someone’s need to practice the harp? Juuust checking is all.’ without sounding like someone may have spiked your sandwich.
These are the hazards no one tells you about when you take on a multi-month intensive harp apprenticeship. You know??
A few days later, when we were in the supermarket, I casually mentioned my fear of harp-madness to Jonathan. He asked to see the book and I dutifully fished it out of my bag.
‘See? It’s weird, right? Isn’t that weird?!’
‘Um, Katya… I don’t know what to tell you, but it DOESN’T say anything about the harp.’
If you want to know whether this joke was well-received, I can assure you it was not.
Existential crises aside, A Visit From the Goon Squad was utterly wonderful. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I finished it this afternoon and had to sit down for about an hour, just reflecting, pondering and luxuriating in the buzzing after-glow that comes with proximity to such ferocious intelligence.
Best served with a dose of mind-melting paranoia, and a pickle. Maybe now I’ll go for the book about smoothies.