A Book By Its Cover

I’m rereading In a Sunburned Country, a book by one of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson. This book is autographed by him. I’d had the good fortune to attend a recent book signing/reading – the only one he’d done in New York City on this tour.

Permit me to digress here on an unrelated note to say that this event was standing room only – at least 150 people crammed into a little section of the bookstore. When Bryson appeared and made his way to the podium, the audience gave him a standing ovation, before he even said a word. Compare this, if you will, to many Subway Chronicles readings where I’ve actually asked store cashiers to sit in the seats so at least the authors could read to a live person.

If you’ve any familiarity with Bryson’s work, you’ll agree he’s an incredibly astute and humorous writer, honing in on the “everyman” quality of any situation he’s in. It’s not uncommon to be chuckling or suppressing an outright laugh should you find yourself reading his books in public, an experience I had just this morning, which I’ll get to in a moment. Really it couldn’t be avoided as close to 90 percent of my reading is in fact done in public.

My subway commute gives me an hour per day of reading time. Occasionally I read magazines and the free AMNY or Metro newspapers that get shoved into my hand at the station entrances, but most often, I’m reading a book. As a novelist-to-be (Do I say “to be” if I’ve spent six years of my life on the damn thing and am just waiting to hear back from the agent? C’mon Agent, call me!) I’ve got many books in my queue, more than I’ll ever get to in a lifetime, classified as: books I should read (A Tale of Two Cities), books I need to read to stay current (Prep), books I’ve tried to read many times, but just can’t seem to connect with (Mrs. Dalloway, sorry Virginia Woolf) and books I want to read to complete some sort of compendium (all books by James Thurber, for example).

Another digression: A recent article in Slate queried well-known writers to find out which books they’ve never read, but felt they should have. They called it their “gravest literary omissions.” For Amy Bloom, it’s Moby Dick; for Myla Goldberg, it’s To the Lighthouse (another Woolf avoider); for Lucinda Rosenfeld, it’s Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (BTW – read her fabulous essay in The Subway Chronicles: Scenes From Life in New York); amazingly for John Crowley, it’s To Kill a Mockingbird. This last one, of course, is really unforgivable. No excuses. Here is an occasion, I’d let him slide by just seeing the movie – Gregory Peck makes an indomitable Atticus Finch.

I get a lot of reading material suggestions from riding the subway. A few years ago nearly every literate citizen of New York was reading Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I ran out to buy a copy with the picture of the blurred elevated tracks to see what all the fuss was about. Then you couldn’t throw a Metrocard without hitting the chalkboard-like cover of Me Talk Pretty One Day, a collection of essays by David Sedaris. Or Eat, Pray, Love, the title outlined in pasta, prayer beads and silk fabric is so creative, it compels me to believe the writing is also (which it is), however ridiculous this seems. Lately I feel I can’t escape the little crown-wearing green frog of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Man of My Dreams. I like the frog. It makes me want to read the book.

As I was reading In a Sunburned Country on the 2 train, a passage made an uncontrollable snort issue from the back of my throat. My eyes darted around like the worst espionage spy ever while I sneaked a look to see who might have witnessed my embarrassing outburst. A man sitting in front of me laughed and pointed. I was horrified that I was the object of his ridicule.

“That’s a great read,” he said. “Bryson’s the best.”

I smiled and nodded, satisfied that he was pointing at the kangaroo on the cover and just recalling his own Bryson moment – proof that you can judge a book by its cover.


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