It's 3 a.m. and as usual, I'm awake, wandering around my New York apartment. I stumble toward the space my husband and son call the family room but I privately think of as "my library." From floor to ceiling on three walls, it's beautifully lined with cherry shelves. My husband Leo—a set designer for Saturday Night Live, and somebody who knows a thing or three hundred about woodworking—built these for me with husbandly pride, professional exactitude, and only a modicum of marital resignation. "Just don't ask me to do the same for your shoes," he said.
I've spent more than late-night time in this room. I've also expended lots of thought and energy here, reading novels I'd saved up for just the right moment, fretting that my books would soon outgrow the precious personal real estate Leo had provided for them, worrying that some favorite book had gone missing, even briefly attempting mass alphabetization. You might not be able to figure out what's going on here organizationally but I have a Rain Man-like capacity to visualize the books, almost title by title, and put my hand on any one within seconds. If I have an urge to dip into, say, John Hubner's Bottom Feeders, an odd biography of the San Francisco pornographers the Mitchell brothers, I see it in my mind's eye, nestled next to Sheri Holman's The Dress Lodger at the bottom of the shelf behind me. There's no discernible logic for those two very different books' existing as neighbors except, per-haps, that they both have bluish covers.
But tonight, unlike most nights, I have an agenda. Tomorrow I'm leaving for a visit to my friend Sabrina's house in Vermont, and I need to choose a book to take with me. I have a New Year's plan: I'm setting out to read a book a week for the next year and write a diary of the experience.
"A book a week?" some friends have asked, shaking their heads in what I blithely assume is envy. "How are you going to do that while you also have a job, a son, and a life to live?" But until now, I haven't been worried. For 20 years, as I worked as a reporter, a teacher, an editor, a TV producer, a book reviewer, and a freelance magazine writer—and for seven as a mother—I've been reading, and usually way more than a book a week. I'm ravenous for books and awake half of most nights—a good combination, it turns out, since the best reading time is from 3 to 5 a.m. in this very room.
I wasn't a particularly early reader or even a very avid one; I don't have bittersweet memories of sitting by the window devouring Little House on the Prairie as other kids whooped it up in the playground. I never once, as an adolescent, chose a fictional Heathcliff over my personal real-life version, who was a boy named Brett Friedman who looked more like Mick Jagger. When it came to reading, I did what I was told: Moby-Dick required in the eighth grade? No problem. Luckily, I was always a fast reader, which meant I still usually had time to busy myself with my more "interactive" pursuits, like torturing my little brother and perfecting my role as the family crybaby.
When did my life change? Looking back, I can see the early-warning signs of readaholism, like when my mother gave me Marjorie Morningstar when I was 13 and I pulled an all-nighter reading—and weeping over—the Herman Wouk novel. I remember one long and lonely summer just before college when I worked as a Kelly Girl in Boston and turned up at my only local friend's house every weekend with a different novel. But I guess I'd say my "disease" reached full flower soon after I'd started living alone in New York, with little money and a narrow social circle. Slowly, it dawned on me: Books could be more than a path to good grades or something to do when, in those pre-cable days, you'd already seen the Movie of the Week.
I started paying closer attention to book reviews and began taking advantage of the free review copies that were pouring into the magazine at which I worked as an editorial assistant. I didn't have much to do on weekends anyway, so I began cruising bookstores and got myself a New York Public Library card. And soon I was hooked: Not only were books cheaper than movies and easier to find than suitable human dates, they could take me with them to fabulous places. I could be sitting in my dank studio apartment with $5 to my name, but simply by opening a book, I could be in Paris in the nineteenth century. I started to beg, borrow, or buy just about any novel, biography, or memoir I could find.
Don't get me wrong: I eventually did start to have a life: plenty of work and friends and trips and movies and dramas—of the interpersonal, not just the bookish, kind. Nobody who knows me would ever confuse me with Marian the Librarian ("Why, Miss Nelson, when you take off your glasses, you're actually pretty!") or suggest I left a single social stone unturned in my pursuit of literature. In fact, I think it's just the opposite: The busier I've gotten over the years—the more family and work activities, the more friends to keep up with, the more duties of adulthood and parenthood, the more, well, life—the more, not the less, I've read. Maybe I'm perverse, but there's something comforting to me about knowing that whatever is going on in my outer world, bad or good, exciting or boring, I know I will find comfort and joy and excitement the minute I get home to my book du jour or semaine, or, very rarely, mois.
So reading a book a week doesn't scare me, exactly, though I do get kind of anxious when somebody asks the next question: "But how will you pick your books?" While I glibly, proudly, always respond, "The same way everybody else does," the truth is, I'm not sure. Will I ask friends for recommendations? (As it turns out, yes. A lot.) Will I cruise bookstores (uh-huh). Will I read reviews? (Less so. I was once a reviewer, so I know better.) I've already made a list of all the things I always meant to get to and never did, and a few titles I loved that I want to reread. It's a pretty long list, and if I worry aloud about anything, it's that there will be too many books to fill the year.
But here's the question nobody asks me, the one I've been asking myself, privately, in the silence of my bed and head. What, exactly, am I doing this for? Why, exactly, do I read so much and what, exactly, do I expect to get out of chronicling my reading? I'm not planning to write 52 book reviews. I'm not trying to meet or set some standard of what it means to be well read. I couldn't care less about telling you what to read. What I am doing, I think, is trying to get down on paper what I've been doing for years in my mind: matching up the reading experience with the personal one and watching where they intersect—or don't.
"I've given up reading books," the American humorist Oscar Levant once wrote. "I find it takes my mind off myself."
Poor Oscar. He missed the point.
Reprinted by arrangement with G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from So Many Books, So Little Time by Sara Nelson. Copyright © 2003 by Sara Nelson. You can read more about the book here, and you can buy it at Amazon.com.