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Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007 01:15 am

On reading well

Sara Nelson shares her love of books in a chatty, witty style

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So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading By Sara Nelson, Berkeley Trade (paperback edition, 2004), 256 pages, $13
Untitled Document I resisted opening this book, even though it was an autographed gift from the author’s sister-in-law, a longtime Springfieldian. I thought that it was another book hammering me with all the books I ought to read when I already felt guilty enough about all the books I hadn’t yet read, and never would, given so many books, so little time. But out of deference to my friend, and the book’s continual resurfacing, I finally did open it — and found it less about books than about the reading of books. There was even a chapter on what to do when a friend pushes a book on you or when you find a friend utterly despises a book you adore and what that says about the friendship. Sara Nelson, a book lover, has been in publishing all her life, and she shares her life in a chatty, witty style. She confides her plan: to read a book a week for a year and write about the experience weekly. She pretty much carries out that plan, though she often tells us less about the book she chooses in any given week than about the choosing (sometimes the book chooses you), the circumstances of reading the book itself, thoughts on that book’s genre or reputation, comparisons with other books, or another book by the same author. Some choices are of new books, some of oldies she’s never read — Charlotte’s Web was on her son’s third-grade reading list, and she and Charley were a tag team, reading a chapter together but not aloud, then discussing it — or oldies she had read but then reread at a different point in her life (Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina). Sometimes she skips a week; we learn why. If she starts a book but finds that she can’t get with it, she quits without a pang of guilt, be it on page 20 or page 220, and advises us to do the same — unless, of course, it’s on a required-reading list for a class. She discusses the perils of loaning books. How the place and time in which you are when you read a book, as well as your state of mind, affect you during the reading. The afterlife, like a comet’s tail, of reading an absorbing book. The importance of covers, of acknowledgments. What about reading the book before seeing the movie or vice versa? Nelson says she never goes anywhere without a book in purse or suitcase, as a hedge against boredom — or of not needing to be thoroughly in the life she’s leading — and this is the final point of her book. She quotes an author’s statement that reading takes you away from your “proscribed little here to a vast and intriguing there” but continues, “While I certainly did discover, this past year, that there were all sorts of connections between my world and the ones that authors have been creating for centuries, there’s also a lot to be learned by taking a break, by closing the book and looking around at actual, not invented, people and places.”
Don’t be daunted by the title of this book. It’s a delightful read. I thanked my friend, belatedly.
Jacqueline Jackson, books and poetry editor of Illinois Times, is a professor emerita of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
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