by Karen Bjork Kubin
How do you pick the next book you will read? Do you read for love? For knowledge? Out of duty? I myself am a somewhat undisciplined reader. Life is short. Mostly I follow my heart. Sometimes I buy or borrow books I consider “shoulds:” should own, should read, should be able to speak about intelligently. But what I finally sit down with almost always comes down to something else. Not that I necessarily know what that something else is—the book just calls to me. I answer in hope of a deep conversation.
Sarah Nelson writes about the conversations between one’s life and the books one is reading in her memoir So Many Books, So Little Time: A Passionate Year of Reading. Like her, I find the conversation between life and books fascinating. There is always some kind of rich interplay between why I choose a book (the questions I’ve been asking, the problems I am chewing on, where my longing lies) and how the book speaks back into my life. Sometimes it is a balm, sometimes it offers strength, sometimes it is a disruption. Often it provides insight or encouragement. Certainly the list of books and authors to whom I feel eternally grateful keeps growing.
During the summer, especially, I find this interplay augmented by travel, as place adds a third layer to the mix. The combinations can be potent. Take Sense and Sensibility, which I read for the first time many years ago on a trip north from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula into Canada. Storms followed our car all day but never caught us, culminating in a night lit almost continuously with heat lightning. It was my first Jane Austen, part of an attempt to make up for all the literature classes I missed as a music student in college, and I was expecting something dry. Instead I was struck by the flashes of humor and pure enjoyment of the story. And I had time to enjoy it—my 22 month-old son was at a happy, easy stage and my daughter was two months from being born. Everything seemed new, and I felt an intense awakening of the mind as well as new hopes for my family. I believe my mind was flying as fast as our car. I determined on that trip to share my love of reading with my children as long as possible.
I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake years later on vacation at a family camp in a different part of Michigan’s U.P. My kids were getting older, and as they started to differentiate themselves from the family, I found I also had to see myself in new ways, both connected to and separate from those I loved most. Once in a while I found myself walking through pine trees alone, not constantly needed. At night, while everyone else slept, I read voraciously. The pages illuminated by the light of my cellphone, the sounds of my children’s breathing mingling in the background, I hungered to see how Gogol Ganguli would untangle the ties of family and tradition and self. I had become someone who read from the perspective of both parent and child, and this book was bringing up questions I had not yet thought to ask.
Maybe a Fox, by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee, was the first book I read after foot surgery last summer. It is a beautiful, beautiful book about loss and love, that likely hit even harder than it might have because of my weakened physical state—confined to my bed, foot elevated, in pain and on medication. Not traveling in this instance, but still outside of my normal realm. Begun as a read-aloud with my 9 year-old, she found it too painful for reading before bed, and so I finished it alone and felt both the loneliness and the connection to my daughter amplified. One of the authors, Alison McGhee, was a teacher of mine in high school, and someone I now consider a friend and mentor. Recognizing her voice within the pages, even as it mingled with another’s, served as counterpoint to the loneliness of the reading—I truly felt guided-through.
I started Li-Young Lee’s book of poetry, Behind My Eyes, on an overnight flight to meet up with my family after a week at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Glen itself is a heightened experience, and by the end of the week I was exhausted—head and heart so full of words and ideas I hardly knew what to do with them. As with Maybe a Fox, I read in something of a dream state. Poetry, for me, is an experience of understanding and not understanding at the same time. Letting each poem both sink in and flow over. Diving into these particular poems was a deepening of the questions, conversations, and readings I heard and took part in throughout the past week. As I flew through the air away from that sacred space, I read with the hope that what was in my head and heart would not fly away, but stay and grow.
I read Wintering by Peter Geye just recently on another trip north, this time to pick up my son after a year away at an arts boarding school. The book is still fresh, not-yet-settled within me, but as our family was deeply immersed in conversations about the future and adulthood and how-best-to-get-there, I was deeply moved by the bonds of love in this book, and the importance of our stories. I was moved, too, by how it spoke to my own struggle with desperately wanting my children’s transition to adulthood to be smooth and easy, against the knowledge that it is impossible, that strength is not nurtured by ease.
Looking back on these books, and the times, places, and states of mind in which I read them, I am struck less by specific details of the books than by the experience and feel of them. Flashes of delight, searching in the dark, trying to grasp my own thoughts and questions. Together they form something new and move forward with me to the next moment, and to the next book that calls.
A violinist by training, Karen Bjork Kubin works as a free-lance musician, teacher, and conductor in a small Midwestern city. Her poems and essays have appeared in Rock & Sling, Whale Road Review, Off the Coast, How to Pack for Church Camp, and American Suzuki Journal, among other publications, including an upcoming poem in the Main Street Rag Anthology Of Burgers and Barrooms. She blogs occasionally about life, art, and other things at kbkubin.blogspot.com.