I’m at the December book exchange held by The Girly Book Club.
Katrina’s number is drawn from the canvas tote bag. As per the rules, she can either pick a book from a table filled with unknown titles (all carefully gift wrapped) or steal someone else’s already chosen book. She’s one of the first people to go. First is not best in a dirty book exchange: chances are someone will probably end up stealing whatever you get, anyway. Katrina decides to try her luck on the table.
And it is a lucky draw, indeed. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara.
“I brought that one,” Sarah D. says, smiling.
My interest is piqued: Sarah D. knows her books. Her recommendations are always stellar. Katrina is sitting next to me, so I sneak a glance at the black and white cover: a close up of a handsome man with his eyes closed, his face twisted in a painful expression. Excruciatingly painful.
“It’s so good.” Sarah D. pauses and brings a hand to her heart. “But I had to take my time. It’s a very heavy read: raw, sad, but incredibly beautiful. I loved it but felt absolutely gutted once I finished.”
A disclaimer: Sarah D. is a sensitive, compassionate friend. An old soul. But she is not a crier. Nor is she prone to hyperbole. This is the first time I’ve seen her describe a book with such melancholic appreciation.
I mentally apologize to Katrina for what I am about to do.
Four rounds later, my number is called.
“Sorry, Katrina,” I say, unceremoniously reaching over and snatching the paperback from her hands.
“Nooooo,” Katrina protests, her face deflated. But it’s too late.
“Fair warning,” I begin, looking around the room. “If anyone takes this book from me, I’ll take their firstborn child.”
(Unlike Sarah D., I am very much prone to hyperbole.)
After my warning, one or two women look in my direction (I’m holding the book up, those are the rules), but no one dares take it. I can practically hear their mental ruminations. She’s probably kidding about the firstborn child thing, but why take an unnecessary risk? We have so many books to choose from!
I sit back in my chair. My Machiavellian strategy is working.
Colleen’s number is the very last one to be called. Colleen is one of my closest, dearest friends and the most well-read person I know. She begins walking towards me. Our eyes lock. I see the mischievous glint in her eyes: Coleen is coming for my book!
“Fine, but Nicholas will be mine,” I say, loudly.
(Yes, I went there. I actually referred to her firstborn child by name. In my defense: all’s fair in love and books.)
Coleen stops short. Two of her strongest natures collide: mother and bibliophile. Fortunately, her maternal instincts prove stronger (this might have something to do with Nicholas being the most perfect child of life). She walks right past me and tries her luck at the table.
To the victor belong the spoils! A Little Life is mine!
The evening continues: laughter and drinking and general bookish fun. It’s December in Toronto: it’s cold, but it’s also magical. The holidays are just around the corner. The mood is festive. This is our tribe, our happy place. I keep my book close to me, feeling crafty and joyful.
When it’s time to say our goodbyes, I hug Colleen and Katrina.
“I’ll bring it at next month’s meeting,” I tell them. The GBC meets on the last Tuesday of every month.
“You might still be reading it,” Sarah D. says.
I smile in a way that is more than a little condescending. I appreciate Sarah. D.’s counsel, but I’m a fast reader. I devour books. This might be a difficult one to digest, but there is no way it will take me over one month.
The next morning, I curl up in my arm chair with a cup of tea. I happily note that A Little Life over eight hundred pages long. Is there anything more exciting than the prospect of a book that is both lengthy and good? I’ve cleared my afternoon. I’m reading at least one third of this baby today.
Except I don’t. I stop just before the one-hundred-page mark.
I stop not because the book isn’t good (it is—it’s brilliant, actually). And not because Baba, my English bulldog, is demanding attention (he’s snoring). Or because Scandal is about to come on (it’s December, Olivia Pope is on vacation). I stop because I’m already feeling—to use Sarah D.’s words—gutted.
My next move isn’t a choice: I put the book aside. For now.
The next day, I pick it up again. I’m not a masochist, but I’m curious. I want to know what will happen to the four friends living in New York City. Most of all, I want to learn more about Jude’s past.
But I only manage to read about thirty pages or so.
This book isn’t just painful or difficult. It’s heartbreaking.
This pattern holds for about one week. While I treasure my time with Willem, Malcolm, JB, and Jude, it comes at a lachrymose price.
Soon, it’s Christmas, which means that my mom-in-law is in town. We don’t get to spend a lot of time together, so when we do, we like to make the most of it. We visit the Christmas Market. We go shopping. We take Baba on long walks on snowy Sherwood Park. We open up countless bottles of wine and eat and drink and chat. I have less time to read and, at the end of the day, I am generally too tired to take on A Little Life.
So, I pick up Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. A good book, but not a heavy read. I can read it without shedding a single tear.
Once I’m finished, I got back to A Little Life, but only for another hundred pages or so. By now, it’s January. My mom-in-law is (sadly) gone, so I do have more free time, but it’s too gloomy and depressing outside. I need a pick-me-up. A friend recommends Little Fires Everywhere, so I buy it on my iPad. And love it!
This goes on for five months. Yes: five months.
(A pause so Sarah D. can point to the screen and say, I told you so!)
In this time, I read twenty other books. (Of these, Tara Westover’s Educated and Emily Giffin’s All We Ever Wanted are my favorites.) This bookish polyamory isn’t fickleness. It’s necessity. It is what allows me to respect A Little Life’s intensity and depth.
I’ve never taken so long to read a work of fiction. And I certainly never imagined that it would take me this long to read one that I was enjoying so very much.
To me, reading has always been an addictive habit. I’m a ravenous reader. Even deeper, more thought-provoking novels don’t stand a chance against me. I have insomnia, so I read during much of the night. And I am too curious, too compulsive a person to read slowly, to take my time. In fact, the entire concept of “taking one’s time” when it comes to books has always felt like laziness to me.
But not anymore.
I stand corrected: certain books demand more time. A lot more time.
Sometimes, reading slowly is the only option.