It occurs to me that I should have a series of posts titled “I Forgot My Key”. Because what that inevitably means is that I must find a warm or cool place to wait until Mister BIP is due home. Which translates into an impromptu library visit.
For the past three years, I’ve been working hard to shift the mathematical reality of my reading, increasing the number of books that I read from my own shelves and decreasing the number of books borrowed from the library. But even back in 2010, when reading from the library without restraint, it was an unexpected treat to have good “reason” to sit with a library book and read.
So forgetting my key has become a paradoxically invigorating event. It’s true: I have to walk for 10 or 15 minutes to a library and back again, to meet Mister BIP’s end-of-day train. But it’s also true that the only other question which remains is how many books I will borrow from my unplanned destination.
On the last Day of Forgetting, I borrowed Michael Ondaatje’s Coming through Slaughter, Paule Marshall’s Triangular Road, Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief and Zadie Smith’s NW.
I was inspired to borrow Michael Ondaatje’s novel because I’d been leafing through the reading lists I made after the new year, looking for some 2017 targets. And I was inspired to borrow Teju Cole’s novel because it, too, seemed to draw inspiration from black-and-white photographs (and I’d enjoyed Open City, which I chatted about here briefly).
Imagine the thrill I had when I came across this passage in Every Day is for the Thief: “What I see makes my heart leap up into my mouth and thrash about like a catfish in a bucket. Michael Ondaatje. It was he who had the dream about acrobats in a great house. Now to find a reader of Ondaatje in these circumstances.”
That’s right: an Ondaatje-reading character in a book that I was inspired to borrow along with an Ondaatje novel. But even beyond the delightfully bookish sense of fated-to read-right-now, the spare and clean prose in Cole’s novel about returning to Nigeria was a pleasure to read.
“The air in the strange, familiar environment of this city is dense with story, and it draws me into thinking of life as stories. The narratives fly at me from all directions. Everyone who walks into the house, every stranger I engage in conversation, has a fascinating story to deliver. The details I find so alluring in Gabriel Garcia Marquez are here, awaiting their recording angel. All I have to do is prod gently and people open up. And that literary texture, of lives full of unpredictable narrative, is what appeals.”
Nonetheless, he is quick to observe the paradoxes of life there, from his earliest brushes with administrative corruption to the constant noise and activity. “There is a disconnect between the wealth of stories available here and the rarity of creative refuge.”
His expectations often clash with the reality of his findings there. “The West had sharpened my appetite for ancient African art. And Lagos is proving a crushing disappointment.” Museums do not have the goods to display which he yearns to observe. And many of the people with whom he yearns to engage are literally sleeping on the job. “What, I wonder, are the social consequences of life in a country that has no use for history?”
But the experience does contain positive elements as well. “Each time I am sure that, in returning to Lagos, I have inadvertently wandered into a region of hell, something else emerges to give me hope. A reader, an orchestra, the friendship of some powerful swimmers against the tide.”
Books that we find when we travel. Books that remind us that we can travel via words.
Do you have a story of bookish synchronicity to tell?