The New Yorker has made the story available online only to subscribers.
Are you currently carrying on a love affair with books? For a period of time measured more accurately in decades? With the lines between desire and obsession fused beyond all reason? Truly and giddily heedless of the consequences?
Why yes, of course you are. And so, this story is exactly for you.
It is a magnificent look, through the eyes of a book, at the many and varied transformations occurring across a half-century of one woman’s life, from her junior year abroad to her deathbed.
The book turns up in a junk shop in an old Saxon market town whose name you will remember as almost certainly having an “m” in it. … You buy the book, lug it around on the rest of the bike tour, drag it back up north with you, but somehow fail to read it. When summer ends, and with it your English idyll, you’re shocked to discover how many essential novels you’ve bought and haven’t got around to reading. …
It is a simple account of an ordinary life (loves, marriages, children, jobs, hopes, fears, etc.), rendered breathtaking by matter-of-fact prose combined with an unflinching engagement with the pace of time. It’s a bit frightening in that way, woven utterly of mortality.
You read it slowly this time, a chapter a night, over the course of weeks. This time through, the book is no more than a grand, futile gesture of nevertheless in the face of human frailty. … Two club members report flinging the book across the room in a rage. Another demands her three days back. … But a few people in the group don’t know what hit them. One friend hated the first fifty pages but wanted fifty more after the end. The quietest man in the group comes back from Wotton-on-Wold wrapped in brittle bewilderment at his own existence.
It is really uncanny how Richard Powers has managed to capture so many aspects of book-loving and life-living in one short story.
Your daughter the reader brings you the book, to keep you company in a state-of-the-art cancer center … You read it again. Not the whole book, of course — you couldn’t possibly read a whole anything. But you manage a few pages, searching for a creature that recedes in front of your gaze.
I hope it is autumn where you are. As you walk outside in the evening, are you more wary because of the growing darkness, more chilled in missing the summer’s heat? Was that shiver born of a sad and quiet happiness?
Consider the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay —
MY candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
It gives a lovely light!
(“First Fig”, from A Few Figs From Thistles: Poems and Sonnets)
Author Richard Powers, noted for his intelligent and challenging science-oriented writing, is a professor in the Department of English and a full-time member of the Beckman Institute Cognitive Neuroscience group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His tenth and most recent novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, was released in paperback this past summer.