I’ve been working on my new novel for about a year now, and I try not to read while writing. This is hard to do when you love to read. People send you ARCs they want you to blurb. You hear about novels you’re dying to read. You buy them. They pile up. Friends talk about the latest must-reads and ask you if you’ve read them yet. You say no and get the distinct feeling that they think maybe you’re not quite as “book smart” as they’d thought. It’s hard to explain how difficult it is to not read when you’re writing, but the only equivalent I can think of is dieting. You really want to eat that cake. You really want those potato chips. But summer is approaching and you want to avoid having a panic attack the first time you put on a bathing suit, so you discipline yourself not to eat what you shouldn’t eat. That’s how it is with books when you’re writing—at least for me.
Having said that, I do indulge in the occasional cheat. On my nightstand I have a few books, not many, that I’ve read before. These are my go-to books, guaranteed to move me no matter how many times I’ve read them. I can open to any page, without commitment, and be reminded that words are not just words but little gods in letterform. These books are The Land of Spices by Kate O’Brien. Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The Captain’s Verses by Pablo Neruda. The Little World of Don Camillo by Giovanni Guareschi.
Last week, however, I added several new old books to my nightstand pile. Tattered-covered, dog-eared, underlined paperbacks that have literally been with me in every apartment I’ve lived in since I moved away from my parents. They’ve survived Ikea bookcases, bad movers, book purges, dogs who like the taste of book spines, sticky toddler fingers (both my sons went through phases where pulling books off the shelves was more fun than watching Blue’s Clues). The reason these books have made it onto my nightstand recently is actually very sad, but I want to share it because it has to do with why I became a writer. These were the books that my favorite English teacher, Mr. Browne, assigned us to read my senior year of high school.
Mr. Browne died last week.
I have to admit, my sense of loss over a man who I haven’t seen or spoken to in over 30 years surprises me a little. I only knew him for that one year, after all. I never once called him by his first name. I didn’t really know him. And yet his passing has shaken me. My tears are real. The loss is personal. I mourn his passing as if I’d talked to him only recently, and I suppose, in a way, that’s partly true. The fact is that Mr. Browne, like every teacher who has made an impact on our lives, has always stayed with me. Like those books that were required reading in his class, I’ve held on to Mr. Browne through layers of new memories, new teachers, new people. I had been a reader before Mr. Browne’s class, but he taught me how to read. I had been a writer before his class, but he taught me how to write. And he’s been there in the background of every book I’ve read and every word I’ve written ever since.
I went to his funeral on Friday at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It was packed with former students, all different generations, whom he had touched over the years. I didn’t know anyone there, but I felt close to everyone. I learned that Mr. Browne had, indeed, known about Wonder, and was aware—and proud—of the fact that he was the inspiration for the character of Mr. Browne. I’d always meant to track him down to tell him this myself, but I’m weirdly shy in some ways. I regret it, of course. I’m so grateful to the people who, not even knowing me, contacted me to let me know about his passing. They were right that I would want to know.
When I came home from the funeral, I pulled from my bookshelf—and onto my nightstand—the books I read in Mr. Browne’s class: The Stranger. Heart of Darkness. Waiting for Godot. Our Town. Death of a Salesman. The Dubliners. These are precious books to me, artifacts of a time and place. I can’t look at them without thinking of the lively class discussions Mr. Browne used to lead. I’ve started rereading them now, one at a time. Last night it was The Dubliners. If there’s ever been a better last paragraph in the history of books than the last paragraph of “The Dead,” please write to me to let me know. It’s very likely Mr. Browne might have known one. I’ll ask him someday. But for now, I’ll stand by my assertion. And I’ll keep reading these books. To hell with writing right now. I need my books, my little gods.
“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” —Henry James