Some books are light confections, amuse-bouches that please in the moment but as soon as they are closed, disappear from the mind as quickly as cotton candy on the tongue. These lovelies absolutely have a place in my personal reading diet, and they are far harder to write than they seem.
But the majority of what I like to read (especially now, as the weather turns cooler and an afternoon under the afghan reading sounds like the best thing in the world) is what I term “BIG FEAST” books – novels that are so deep, layered, and complex that they demand to be read again. There is so much there there to these books that I know I’m only getting 20% or, if I’m lucky, 30%, of the meaning and beauty the first time ‘round. These are the books that require – nay, demand – second and third and even fourth readings to give them their due.
Among my favorite feast-y books is Toni Morrison’s Paradise, which begins with one of the most shocking sentences in all of recent literature (“They shoot the white girl first.”) and manages, in 318 pages, to make the kind of grand exploration of love, life, and loss you usually find in books three times as long. (Morrison gets extra points from me for setting her novel in Oklahoma.) Paradise also has the distinct honor of being my favorite book discussion book: I still recall with great fondness the evening, more than 12 years ago, that my group started to piece together what it all meant – which made me begin re-reading it right away the very next morning.
I’m still not over Nathan Englander’s devastating The Ministry of Special Cases. Set during a time and place I know very little about – the Jewish community of Argentina in the mid-1970s during “The Dirty War” – this novel nevertheless still figures into my thoughts occasionally. Reading (and re-reading) it feels like a graduate education (in the best way) in literature.
Finally, if you happened to see the movie “Blindness” a few years ago and were disappointed, I’d like to direct you to the far superior novel Blindness by Jose Saramago. Saramago has perfected the trick of writing a literary page-turner, a tour de force of unified character, story, and theme that still has my brain buzzing.
There is a place for my Elinor Lipmans and my Rainbow Rowells – the best writers of shimmering, lovely, funny works – but I will always return to books that are dark, and deep, and deserve to be feasted on again and again.