PRIMARY HOBBY: BOOKWORM
“I believe that magically the book we are supposed to read somehow appears in our hands at just the right time,” best-selling author Ann Hood writes in her new memoir MORNINGSTAR: Growing Up With Books, a series of essays about the books that shaped her life. I nodded constantly while reading MORNINGSTAR last month. Like Ann, my hometown didn’t have a library either. Every Saturday a Bookmobile parked at the post office across from my house, and I’d check out as many books as my little arms could cradle and carry them home. I devoured all the books I could get my hands on. Low-brow, high-brow, it didn’t matter. Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie, Ursula Le Guin. Like Ann, I remember reading Little Women over and over.
As a child, I was embarrassed at being called a bookworm. And a tad self-conscious filling out questionnaires that asked me to list my hobbies. “Reading” I’d write, struggling to come up with at least one more entry. Had the Bookmobile not made a pit stop across from my house when I was little would I have become first in my family to enroll in college? Gone on to law school beyond that, read to my children every night of their lives, and at mid-life have started a second career as a writer? Maybe not.
Ann says books “magically” appear in our hands at just the right time. And I believe her. Those goosebump-producing encounters are real. And her word, “magically,” isn’t a throwaway. Because Ann also writes about the so-called coincidences that placed certain specific books out of millions at her eye level at just the right time in her life.
Last week I had the honor of introducing one of my favorite authors – Ann Hood – at a lecture sponsored by the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home in Savannah, Georgia. The goal of the lecture series is to honor distinguished literary writers who are beneficiaries of O’Connor’s rich legacy. There’s no question Ann is a standard bearer of that legacy.
While introducing Ann, I held up the first book I’d ever read of hers, placed in my hands at exactly the right time in my life. In 2008, I read a review of one of Ann’s books in a magazine, and I went right down to Barnes & Noble in Brooklyn and bought it. The title? COMFORT. That one word describes in a sense what all books do, but it’s also the perfect description for what Ann’s book did for me.
Ann wrote COMFORT after she lost her five-year-old daughter. To me that kind of grief is still hard to imagine. At the time, I was suffering from a different kind of loss – the death of my marriage and the loss of my family and most important dreams. And I was devastated. Like Ann, I’d sometimes sob in the grocery store if a certain piece of music came on over the loudspeaker. But Ann’s slim book magically found my hands, and Ann’s words found their way into my heart. In her book, Ann related what people told her over and over. And they said the same things people kept telling me: Time Heals. Move on. And still I cried and felt stuck.
And then, years after my separation, I read Ann’s words. “Time doesn’t heal. I had learned it just keeps moving. And it takes us with it,” she said. “Grief isn’t something you get over,” she continued. “You go on with it lodged in you.”
What a relief to read those words! I sobbed even more, but I also felt better. Just to know they were true.
More recently, I read Ann Hood’s The Obituary Writer, after my mother died. Another book, and an absolutely exquisite novel, placed in my hands right when I needed it. Of her protagonist Vivien, Ann wrote: “Sometimes she could actually visualize her grief. It was a wave, a tsunami that came unexpectedly and swept her away.” Yes! Losing my mother felt just like that.
Ann says this on the dedication page to MORNINGSTAR: “This book is for all the giants whose shoulders I stand on – with thanks for letting me see farther.” Back at you Ann Hood for giving us your books to do the same. And for giving me “comfort” right when I needed it.
Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home
Morningstar: Growing Up With Books
Ursula Le Guin