But enough about me. Let's talk about my project.
I'm here trying to choose my first book of the year. I've spent a good couple of days thinking about what that book should be, which means I've been scanning these shelves as well as sifting through the piles near my bed, the ones mentally marked Must Read, Might Read, and Maybe Someday. (I'm intermittently ruthless about the assignment of these categories, banishing Richard Russo's Empire Falls from Must Read to Maybe Someday after six failed attempts to get interested in it. On the other hand, I moved Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit from Might Read to Must Read after no fewer than six friends extolled its virtues.) I've already decided to take one biggish book instead of the usual three or four I often pack as insurance against being caught-can you imagine?-with nothing to read. I've already finished The Corrections-and besides, I have this idea that the New Year should begin with a New Book, preferably one that's light and maybe even funny. The year 2001 was tough going for all of us, and I have this superstitious idea that if I start this year with something happy, it'll be a happy year.
Eventually, I find, high up on the shelves, where the newest books often go, a copy of Funnymen, a novel by Ted Heller, who wrote the delightful Slab Rat, which I loved, despite the terrible review it got in The New York Times Book Review. Heller-son of Joseph Catch-22 Heller-has a gift for black comedy (coincidence or genetics? You decide), and this new novel sounds intriguing: it's an imagined oral history of a comedy team made up of a Jewish comedian and an Italian-American crooner in the post-vaudeville era. It's a Martin-Lewis kind of thing, I gather from the jacket copy, and while I've never been a great fan of that particular couple, I find the phenomenon kind of interesting. And it weighs in at around 400 pages, so all my criteria are met. Funnymen it is, then, I think as I tuck it into my duffel bag.
I should probably stop right here and explain that this wasn't the most ordinary of Vermont lodges we would be visiting. Our host, my friend Sabrina, is the widow of a stepson of the famous Russian writer and thinker Alexander Solzhenitsyn. As mother of the author's first grandchild, Sabrina is still welcome at the compound in Cavendish, Vermont, where the Solzhenitsyns lived in exile for nearly twenty years. (They're now back in Russia, and the Cavendish digs are used by Sabrina and the two S. sons who live in the States.) The idea of visiting a famous Nobel Prize-winning author's home appeals to me, and besides, Sabrina has promised us skiing lessons and hot toddies and lots and lots of lazy hours to read by the fire.
When we get there, the family's choice of exile venue begins to make sense: it's beautiful land up here, but isolated, and very, very cold. The two houses the author had built for him-one for the family to live in and one for the writer to write in-are connected by a basement passageway. There's something very Russian about the whole setup, and it even suggests a kind of architectural Stockholm syndrome: the expatriate author purposely building a home reminiscent of the Siberian prison in which he spent a couple of decades.
In other words, it's the polar (pun intended) opposite of the warm, loquacious nightclub world Heller portrays in Funnymen.
Still, I'm looking forward to the visit and to reading Funnymen, and after a day on the slopes-or rather, a day in which Leo and I hovered as Charley took his first skiing lesson on the slopes-a hearty dinner, and a couple of drinks, I sit down on the simple sofa in front of the fire and open it. But suddenly, it's not so Funny. In the book, Heller is describing the honky-tonk vaudevillian atmosphere of a Catskills nightclub; I look up for a moment and see hard ground and bare, frozen trees. One character refers to the "A-bomb" nature of the act because it "kills" so well, and Iwander into the Russian Orthodox chapel the author built for himself in the basement. I'm sorting through characters named Heine and Ziggy and Snuffy and my eyes wander to the wall-to-wall bookshelves-more of them here but not nearly so nice as the ones Leo built-and wonder aloud at a big fat book whose title is spelled out in angry red Asian characters. What's that? I ask Sabrina. Oh, she says, with the air of someone who's had it explained to her before, that's Solzhenitsyn's August 1914: Red Wheel, but in Malaysian. I suddenly understand what's wrong with this picture: I'm reading about the Borscht Belt in the middle of the Gulag. No wonder I can't retain my focus.
Part of the appeal of books, of course, is that they're the cheapest and easiest way to transport you from the world you know into one you don't. That's why people who'd never leave the house read travel tomes and why, on a swelteringly hot summer day, you can have fun with, say, Smilla's Sense of Snow. A friend of mine tells me that he likes to listen to tapes of Trollope novels while negotiating New York City traffic because he likes the clash of his inner and outer worlds: "The lovely British voice on the tape is saying, 'And the vicar went into the parish,' just as I'm yelling in my best New Yorkese, 'Hey, Buddy, up yours!' to the cabdriver on my right." Reading's ability to beam you up to a different world is a good part of the reason people like me do it in the first place-because dollar for dollar, hour per hour, it's the most expedient way to get from our proscribed little "here" to an imagined, intriguing "there." Part time machine, part Concorde, part ejector seat, books are our salvation.
But here I am in rural, outer Vermont, having traveled this time by train, not page. And suddenly, Funnymen-a book that back in New York might well have transported me happily to the Catskills-seems superfluous. I was already in a new world. Besides, reading a novel about comedians here seemed somehow inappropriate, sort of like giggling over Bridget Jones's Diary at a divorce proceeding. There was no way I was going to get through it.
So I started prowling Solzhenitsyn's shelves. "Why not try something by the great man himself?" my exasperated husband suggests. But by now my college-major Spanish is so rusty I can barely understand what my building superintendent says, let alone the thoughts of the great writer. And I don't read Russian-or Croat or Chinese or Malaysian for that matter-so my options are limited. In fact, in both of these houses, except for a dog-eared copy of Gulliver's Travels I find in one of the sons' bedrooms upstairs, there's almost nothing that's both (a) in English and (b) not about or by Solzhenitsyn himself. For a brief moment, I consider One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which I remember vaguely from a college world history course, but then I remember the only reason I read it then: some Russian novel was required, and Ivan Denisovich was the shortest one on the list. Eventually, I uncover a copy of a book in English called Solzhenitsyn: Soul in Exile, which I gather is one of the few biographies sanctioned by the Solzhenitsyn family, as there is a boxful of them standing by the door. It's a book I never, ever would have read under any other circumstances, but I'm in Russia now, I tell myself. I need to do as the Russians do. What's more: I'm grateful to have a window on the world I've just entered.
Remember how I said I expected to learn some lessons about reading? Well, I just never thought they'd be so prosaic-or would come so soon. But by the time Leo and Charley and I were settled back onto the train to New York, I'd figured out a few things. To wit: (1) Choosing a book is not all that different from choosing a house. There are really only three rules: location, location, and location. And (2) In reading, as in life, even if you know what you're doing, you really kind of don't. To paraphrase the old saw: If you want to make the book god laugh, show him your reading list.
"How do you choose your books?" my friends had asked. Less than a week into my project, I can now tell them the beginning of the truth. I don't always choose the books, I'll say. Sometimes the books choose me.
Excerpted from SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME: A Year of Passionate Reading by Sara Nelson, copyright © 2004 Sara Nelson, published by Berkley Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.