The Joy of Books (For Serious Readers Only)

Some people eat to live while others live to eat—books are both for me. I read to live and I live to read. My confession: I am a hopeless bibliophile who could possibly be enjoying the initial symptoms of bibliomania.

Recently, I came across a fascinating list of books on “100 of the Best Thriller Novels of All Time.” It used bestseller lists, Amazon rankings, and Goodreads ratings, to round up some of the best titles and presented them in no particular order. To my utter surprise, I had read only 24 of them. It was a veritable treasure chest of prospective new books—a genre I call “escapist fiction.”

After reading the article, a book (coming in at #78) that grabbed my attention was Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s “The Shadow of the Wind.” I immediately began researching it. Richard Eder of the New York Times described “Shadow of the Wind” as ”Gabriel García Márquez meets Umberto Eco meets Jorge Luis Borges’’ for a sprawling magic show, exasperatingly tricky and mostly wonderful.” He had me at Gabriel García Márquez. A compilation of other reviews described (to paraphrase), a garish, erotic, gothic quest to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

A book about books, booksellers, a bookshop, and a labyrinthian library with a bit of sex thrown in for good measure sounds like crack cocaine to me. I devoured the extraordinary book with utter delight. And then learned that it was the first of a four-book series. Yes! I have now read all of them.

When I discover a book, then find that there is a trove about that subject, that’s bliss. And when they are all books about books, that is nirvana. Thus, I discovered and read Eco’s “In the Name of the Rose,” Borges’ “Ficciones” and “The Library of Babel”—the short story that almost certainly inspired all the books above—and King’s “Ex-Libris,” that I am currently reading which led me to a fascinating discovery of bookplates (particularly erotic bookplates) and to design my personal ex-libris. Wow! That may be one of the longest sentences I have ever written.

And as often happens in my life—my friends call it “the golden horseshoe shoved up my ass”—during the very time I am immersed in this literary world of books, bookshops, booksellers, bookplates, and libraries, I received an invitation to attend a VIP luncheon at one of the most spectacular libraries in the world. The Johns Hopkins Legacy Society (of which I am a member) is hosting its annual gathering at the George Peabody Library (photo below) with presentations by two Johns Hopkins library curators featuring rare stories in mid-September. Be still my heart.

Considering the joy this subject brings me and so many others, I thought it might be fun to feature a few questions from the NY times “By the Book” article. I will answer them and would love for you to do so.

What books are on your nightstand?

“Ex-Libris” by Ross King, “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon, “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie, “The Art of Bibliomania” by Holbrook Jackson, and I am rereading the magical “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez.

What’s the last great book you read?

“The Cemetery of Forgotten Books Series,” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Before that, “The Chymical Wedding,” by Lindsey Clarke, and “Circe,” by Madeline Miller. My definition of great: When finishing a book, do I want to go back to page one immediately and reread it? Yes, to these six moving and delightful books.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

For a St. John’s College summer series in Santa Fe last year, I finally read Michael Mann. “The Magic Mountain” reminded me how much our world has changed, and it tells the beguiling story of a “bildungsroman,” a type of quest.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

In a mountain cabin, snow falling, a massive wood fire in the fireplace, reclining on an overstuffed leather couch under a sherpa blanket. I told my friend Mike Woolley about my lifelong dream to read Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” in those ideal circumstances, and he made it happen exactly (and better) than I could have imagined in Angel Fire, New Mexico. As I read, it snowed over eighteen inches, and he kept the firebox stocked with seasoned wood.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

The “Joy of Reading: A Passionate Guide to 189 of the World’s Best Authors and Their Works” by Charles Van Doren. This book about books is as delightful to read as the extraordinary books he so “passionately” describes.

What book should everybody read before the age of 21?

Neil Gaiman’s “The View from the Cheap Seats.” “The Magus” by John Fowles, or Madeline L’Engle’s “Walking on Water.”

What book should nobody read until the age of 40?

“Elderhood” by Louise Aronson, and of course, “The Quest” by yours truly.

What books, if any, most influenced your wanderlust and sense of home?

First, as a child, the Greek Golden Age writers: Homer, Euripedes, and Herodotus. Then as a young boy, “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn,” later in life, “Walden,” “The Long-Legged House,” and recently “A Gentleman in Moscow.”

Are there travel writers you especially admire?

Alain de Botton gave me the philosophy of travel, John Steinbeck inspired the delight of travel, and Peter Mayle made me fall in love with Provence.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

“Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D.H. Lawrence, and anything by Stephen King or Neil Gaiman.

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person?

Books by Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen make me think of my mother, who instilled my love of reading at a very early age.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

Writing with layers underneath that evokes the senses and makes me feel synchronicity.

How do you organize your books?

The library in my little studio in Florida has a wall of bookcases loosely organized into classics, favorites, sets, travel, food and drink, and current research. I am collecting the top fifty most banned books, and because I have limited space, I am making sure the library has only books I have read or am about to read.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

“The Mystery of Cabin Island” by F.W. Dixon. It is a childhood book: A Hardy Boys Mystery.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

When I was a child living in extreme poverty in the Appalachians, my mother somehow cobbled together money to buy me a paperback set of the world’s greatest classics. They had stark white covers with the title and author in black and white but the contents inside transported me to realms beyond my wildest imagination. I would give anything to have those back. I suppose they were lost or sold in our many moves.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

Voracious. Anything by Mark Twain, “The Odyssey,” “Ivanhoe,” Hardy Boys Mysteries, and biographies, particularly about Lincoln, Washington, Adams, Daniel Boone, and Mozart.

What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?

I just told Mom about “The Shadow of the Wind.”

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Robert McCammon. Or would that be too horror-filled? It’s dinner, after all, with lots of spirits. Ha. For a lighter evening, maybe Oscar Wilde, Madeline L’ Engle, and Mark Twain.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like and didn’t?

“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. It seemed gimmicky with the lack of contractions and too dark. I guess it was supposed to be—the end of the world and all that?

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

“Ulysses” and “Finnegan’s Wake” by James Joyce. I loved “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

What do you plan to read next?

“The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie. I want to read the book and see what would cause a religious fanatic to attempt to assassinate the author, and I want to support an author with his profound courage.