"I can not live without books," Thomas Jefferson once wrote. Avid readers Sara Nelson, Nancy Pearl and Michael Dirda happily share the celebrated statesman's sentiment. From tales of childhood to thoughts on Tolstoy and Twain, a trio of new books by these literature lovers reflects the perks and quirks of their page-turning obsession. Recreation for some, therapy for others, books can enrapture, enrage, envelop and amaze as these talented authors demonstrate.
"Books get to me personally," says New York Observer publishing columnist and self-proclaimed readaholic Sara Nelson. "When things go right, I read. When things go wrong, I read more." In her new book, So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading (Putnam, $22.95, 224 pages, ISBN 0399150838), Nelson takes the reader along for a year's worth of literature and life, offering funny, wise commentary on the ways in which the two intersect. Nelson, who had originally intended to select 52 books for 52 weeks of reading, says her plan fell apart almost immediately. "In reading, as in life, even if you know what you're doing, you really kind of don't," she says. In week one, she set out to read Ted Heller's Funnymen, a book about stand-up comics, while staying in a Vermont home once owned by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. But Heller's gags didn't play well in the snowy, somber setting, says Nelson. From that point forward, she says, books seemed to choose her as much as she chose them. So Many Books, So Little Time is jam-packed with memorable moments, including the unlikely writing lessons gleaned from culinary bad boy and Kitchen Confidential author Anthony Bourdain. Perhaps most memorable of all are Nelson's musings on a reader's right to stop reading a book he or she doesn't like: "It's the literary equivalent of a bar mitzvah or a communion," says the author. "The moment at which you look at yourself and announce: Today I am an adult. I can make my own decisions.'" For the record: Nelson now allows herself to toss disappointing tomes at page 20 or 200.
For many, reading is escapism. For writer and Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl, books were nothing short of salvation. Raised in a lower-middle class neighborhood in Detroit, Pearl says her family defined dysfunction long before the label came to be. "All I knew then was that I was deeply and fatally unhappy," says Pearl, author of Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason. During childhood and early adolescence, Pearl sought refuge at the Parkman Branch Library, where friendly librarians introduced her to books resonating with realities far brighter than her own. "It is not too much an exaggeration if it's one at all to say that reading saved my life," she says. Providing recommendations and revelations for more than 100 categories of books, from "Road Novels" and "Russian Heavies" to "Fabulous First Lines" and "Food for Thought," Pearl's approach is direct. The author of several professional books for librarians, including Now Read This, she highlights some of her favorite scribes in the category "Too Good to Miss," offering an eclectic assortment of authors, including Robert Heinlein and Jonathan Lethem. With its short, snappy chapters, Book Lust is a must for any serious reader's bedside table, a literary nightcap sure to prompt sweet dreams. "All that kid wants to do is stick his nose in a book," lamented steelworker Eugene Dirda about his son Michael, a shy, bespectacled boy who preferred the pages of Thoreau to dating or sports. From humble beginnings in the Ohio rust belt town of Lorain to a top post at one of the nation's most prestigious newspapers, Dirda's world has always percolated with words. Both witty and wistful, An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland (Norton, $24.95, 320 pages, ISBN 0393057569) pays homage to a bookish youth spent in small-town America. Woven throughout the text are references to books and authors who inspired, intrigued and rankled Dirda, who is now Senior Editor for The Washington Post Book World.
Dirda gives a grateful nod to the educators and friends who influenced him in his early adult years. The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist also makes peace with the man he considered impossible to please: "I forgave my father everything: He could be overbearing and worse, but his soul-deadening labor gave me the time to read and to know that my life would be privileged compared to his." Books, it seems, can also offer redemption. Allison Block writes from La Jolla, California.