It’s almost my birthday, and my mother needs ideas for a present. She loves books and book-shopping, so I go straight to my Goodreads list, thinking, Easy! I’ll just grab two or three titles and email them to her.
There are currently 98 books I’ve earmarked as “Want to Read” on my virtual bookshelf there. Of course I haven’t arranged them in any way, but there aren’t so many that I can’t just go through them. So I start.
As I scroll, I begin to realize that, with few exceptions, everything under “My Books” is either a memoir about death, grief, or coping or a self-help-ish volume about death, grief, or coping or a craft book about writing about death, grief, or coping. There are a handful of stories about siblings, which are related to some of my personal experiences of death, grief, and coping.
Mom knows I write and read about loss and bereavement, but it isn’t a topic she’s very interested in (read: avoids vehemently) despite/because of our shared foundational loss (my brother who fell off a mountain). I know she finds what I do depressing, something she’d rather not focus on. And she isn’t drawn to hard stories the way I have always been. Like many, my mom reads for escape, to get away from life’s miseries, not to look right at them. On purpose.
Going back to the list: There are a couple of books about music tucked in there, though one of those is Elvis Costello’s memoir — and he’s got cancer, so… Carrie Fisher’s memoir is there, too. Of course, it’s about alcoholism and bipolar disorder, and well, she’s dead now. There’s a journalist’s tale of America’s opioid crisis, a true story of rape in the military, a graphic memoir about race and identity, a part fiction/part nonfiction tome surrounding pedophilia.
I knew I gave up a lot of fiction reading, but jeez. The one novel in there that might interest her has a story line that ends up focusing on AIDS. Not exactly a beach read. Mom likes to read reviews, so she won’t just purchase a book and send it to me without fully inspecting the contents. She will study it, and by extension, worry about me.
Wait, I see something different! It’s a memoir about living with… chronic anxiety. Maybe not. Oh, an anthology! That could be good. Aiyiyi, it’s all essays about not wanting to have kids. And, I sincerely can’t make up this one, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence.
When I’m about to give up and ask for a new pair of earrings, I finally find one option (why did I ever think two or three would be possible?): West with the Night, the autobiography of Beryl Markum, “aviator, racehorse trainer, beauty—and her life in the Kenya of the 1920s and ’30s.” Mom knows I love reading adventure stories (despite the reasons why), and she loves feminist women. As it happens, my mom owns and loves this book. Phew.
It’s an interesting kind of portrait, one’s bookshelf, virtual or made of solid oak. Mine certainly says a lot about me — at least right now, at this time in my life — a snapshot of my fears, loves, questions, curiosities, and neuroses.
When you rifle through your collection, what does it say about you? To you?