Friday, May 16, 2014

When your mind goes blank

There's an interview with Francine Prose at the end of her paperback Reading Like a Writer. Responding to the seemingly simple question "What are you reading these days?", she replies, in part, "But one of the reasons I'm glad I wrote this book and I'm glad there's the bibliography at the end is that whenever anyone asks you for a book recommendation or what you're reading, everything just flies out of your mind; you just can't think of single book you've ever read."

To this, her interviewer responds, "That's true."

And I thought it was just me.

It has never made sense to me why, in view of the fact that I spend so much of my time thinking about the books I am reading and those I've recently read, I have such difficulty bringing to mind the title of even one book when anyone asks what I'm reading or what's the best book I've read lately. Such questions, which as a book reviewer I have been asked many times over the years, always seem to catch me unprepared. Five minutes later, of course, after the conversation has ended or moved on to other topics, I can remember the titles of numerous books.

I recall once being asked by a woman for a book I would recommend for her to read. Honestly the only book I could think of at that moment was Mark Winegardner's novel Crooked River Burning, which I had finished some weeks before. Now that is an excellent novel, set in Cleveland. I once spoke with Winegardner at a book festival and told him the novel reminded me of something John Dos Passos might have written. He seemed surprised at my comment and told me he had been reading Dos Passos before he wrote it. So, yes, Crooked River Burning is an excellent novel, but I knew as I spoke it was not something this woman was likely to enjoy. Yet I couldn't think of anything else I had ever read. When she promised to buy a copy of Winegardner's book, I actually felt guilty.

I've been better prepared the last couple of years. Last year I was smitten by Ann Patchett's novel State of Wonder. The best book I've read this year so far has been Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. So I think I'm ready if someone asks me to recommend a book. That doesn't mean I will actually remember either of these titles when I'm on the spot, however.

Prose added a long list of books she recommends at the end of Reading Like a Writer. Her own ready reply to such queries now is even easier than mine: "Read the list," she says.

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