I’ve been doing a lot of book touring recently, which means that I often live out of one small carry-on suitcase for weeks and even months at a time. In many ways I quite like this. I can step away from the clutter that is my real life and pretend that I am a monkish sort of person, with few attachments or material possessions. I don’t mind not having a lot of clothes to choose from, since I’m happiest in a black turtleneck and jeans. The real problem with this faux ascetic lifestyle is that it severely limits the number of books I can carry. I do read ebooks, and there’s a lot to be said for them, not the least of which is that one can carry an entire library on one’s iPad. But the point of book tour is to visit bookstores, and bookstores sell real books, the bound, irresistible kind that exist between covers and are heavy and hard to pack. On book tour, confronted every day by beautiful books, one is sorely tested.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia – by Mohsin Hamid
Last year I did a reading at R.J. Julia bookstore in Madison, Connecticut, and the irrepressibly lovely owner, Roxanne Coady, insisted on loading me up with her favorite hardcover titles. I protested, weakly and unconvincingly, and when she wouldn’t take no for an answer, I asked her for her current favorite. She chose How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid. I was grateful. It’s a smallish book, light to pack, but when I started reading it, I quickly realized that its size in no way correlates with its power. This is a huge book, a fast and funny story that somehow captures all the urgency and human striving of our global, interconnected world. It’s also unexpectedly moving—philosophically moving, if this makes sense—and I was in tears at the end of it.
I first read this novel in manuscript form on my computer. Karen is a friend, and usually when friends give me a manuscript to read, I do them the favor of printing it out first. But when Karen sent me hers attached to an email, I was so eager to read that I downloaded and finished it before I had time to print. Then, when I was on tour and saw the beautiful new hardcover on display in a bookstore, I had to buy it, and I reread it with equal pleasure. It’s an astonishing book, at once heartbreaking and hilarious, about an exceptional and very unusual family—and to tell you more about it would be to give away too much of the plot. So I’ll just say that at the core of this beautiful book is the kind of intellectual and ethical compassion that makes for the most resonant and powerful fiction. Again, a book that moved me to tears.
When I was reading at Looking Glass Books in Edinburgh, Gillian Robertson, the wonderful shop owner, gave me the lovely Persephone edition of A Writer’s Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, which I admit I was stroking in a covetous and distinctly unmonkish fashion. Persephone Books is a small UK publisher that prints “mainly neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women” that is “neither too literary nor too commercial.” The editions are of a uniform size, bound between soft, supple, dove grey covers, each with stunning endpapers, chosen to complement the particular book and to stimulate yearning. I first read Virginia Woolf’s diaries when I was in high school and still in the aspirational stage of becoming a writer, so much of her discussion of process and craft, as well as the business of putting books into the world, was beyond me then. Now, rereading it, I appreciate her brilliant writer’s mind more deeply. Her diaries are challenging, comforting, inspiring, and also sad—or rather I am sad that she died when she did, but I’m also grateful that she lived and wrote when she did. If she were trying to write and publish books now, she wouldn’t have time to write in her diary. She would have been on book tour, and maintaining her web presence, and struggling to keep up with Facebook and Twitter. I can’t help thinking she would have hated all this business. She certainly would have had a lot less time to write.
Meet Ruth Ozeki, a 2014 PNBA Book Award Winner for her novel A Tale for the Time Being, at her award presentation ceremony Jan. 29, Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, WA or at one of her other upcoming events.