Pretty typical: I’m reading two books at once, flopping onto the sofa with one and then rolling on the floor-by-the-fireplace with the other. Although their topics are different–the publishing world and the life of a food blogger–both Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees and Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life, my two books du jour, share an intimate quality. Both fall into the genre I sometimes call “The Calming Book,” books that calmly take me into the narrator’s world and reassure me that I can go there too. One of my favorite Calming Books is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.
I heard a fantastic interview with Betsy Lerner on Barbara DeMarco’s “Writers on Writing” show (love this show!), which is when I learned that a revised and updated edition of Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees had just been released. I flashbacked with nostalgia to my first reading of the first edition of The Forest for the Trees ten years ago. I was writing my first (never to be published, let’s not talk about it) memoir and eager to learn everything about the publishing world, a shining Emerald City I was not sure I’d ever reach. I’d read books with titles like How to Write a Book Proposal. But this was different. The cliché of memoir book jacket copy was true: it was like talking to your best friend. If your best friend were first an editor, then an agent, and then an author in her own right (I recommend Lerner’s memoir Food and Loathing too).
I was eager to read the updated edition because I was intrigued by something Lerner said about contemporary writers’ use of social media during the Writers on Writing interview–something like yeah, Twitter, Facebook, it’s all great for promoting your work, but if you’re not writing, what’s the point? I wanted to read more of Lerner’s take on the brave new publishing world, and the updated edition is interesting in that light. But for me, it’s been rereading the older material about what happens to the new writer as she or he enters the publishing machine that has been most enlightening and reassuring and, yes, calming. I wasn’t the only writer to be driven half-mad by the publication process. She had warned me. I’d read the words ten years before, but hadn’t wanted them to be true.
I’m reading A Homemade Life in preparation for Molly Wizenberg’s visit to my memoir class at the University of Washington next week. Last term we read Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story and D’Onofrio’s Riding in Cars with Boys, and Wizenberg’s tranquil renderings of her family life growing up and the road that led to her blog “Orangette” are a lovely respite. A Homemade Life is one of those books that if someone told me this was their idea for a book (little anecdotes–mostly sweet about family, food, love and ritual) and begged me for my opinion (I add beg because generally I make it a rule not to give an opinion on a book idea because I’m convinced it’s all in the rendering. Case in point: Art Speigelman’s Maus), I would have said, “Eeeh, not so much. Sounds a bit, I dunno, quiet.” And that’s why you should never ask someone for their opinion on a book topic (or at least maybe you shouldn’t ask me) because this book is quiet. Elegantly quiet. And, that is the source of this calm reassurance it radiates, which is why no doubt the book became a New York Times bestseller. We are all in need of a little calm. We are all in need of a world where the tallest order of the day is finding our way to the other side of a perfect scone.
What are you reading? Do you have a “calm book”?