Sunday, March 11, 2012

Defending Jacob

It's a tricky situation when a friend hands you a book with the urgency that you "must" read simply must. Schizophrenically I feel both honored and a little panicked because one is now presented with a dilemma. A friend obviously places in your hands not only a book, but also a trust that you will affirm his or her opinion, his or her taste. Naturally, he also trusts that you will return the book after having read it. What inevitably follows is the expectant look on the dear one's face when you hand it back over. Therefore, you must read it whether it appeals to you or not because you will be expected to say something about it. Correct? Didn't you just love it? If you didn't love it, what do you say? A small untruth - I don't think I should actually call it a lie - is worth the price of not insulting someone you really like because, let's face it, there is a tinge of insult in returning a loved book accompanied by a tepid review...or worse. It's easier when a friend simply suggests a book. In that event you can always say, "Well, I'll have to put that on my To Be Read list," and leave it at that. If you do get around to picking it up, and really hate it, no one need be the wiser. But there is no getting around it when the book is actually handed to you.

Very recently I walked into my office one morning and found a book from a friend and colleague poised on my desk chair with a bright yellow Post-It Note stuck to the cover printed with the capital letters (so there was no misunderstanding the urgency.) "THIS IS THE BEST THING I HAVE READ IN TWO YEARS. YOU MUST READ IT!" The exclamation point was redundant. The book was Defending Jacob by William Landay. I was in the middle of reading Half Broke Horses by Jennifer Walls and was enjoying it very much. I do not generally have more than one book going at a time. Defending Jacob sat on the dining room table for a few days, silently reminding me it was there, until I picked it up so I could get it read and returned. No point in delaying the inevitable.

It was a very stormy Saturday with gale force winds and a deluge of rain. Definitely a stay inside kind of day. And so, I read. I read through my morning coffee. I read as I stirred a pot of chicken stock. I read through lunch. I read as I put a load of laundry in the washing machine. I propped the book up and read as I washed and dried dishes. I read as I fed the dog and the cats. I didn't read in the shower but would have if I could have figured out a way to make it work. I read when I finally went to bed. It was well past midnight; I had only 50 pages left. I didn't want to fall asleep...but I gave in and reluctantly marked my place, turned out the light, and listened to the storm for a couple of seconds aware for the first time all day how weary my eyes were.

I woke early the next morning and felt for the book, which was buried under the cat, reached for the light, retrieved my reading glasses lost in the covers, and finished the book. On Monday morning I heard my friend's distinctively deep oratorical voice billowing out of a conference room. He stopped in mid-sentence as I peeked through the door...saw the book in my hand...and an expectant smile spread across his face. Defending Jacob is one of the most riveting books I've read lately...maybe ever. I can't say it is the "best" thing I've read in years simply because I would not know how to compare it with, for instance, the understated beauty of Remains Of The Day, or the gut wrenching story-line of The Book Thief, or the wild roller coaster ride of The Eyre Affair.

But it is so good, so very worth the time. If you were here and I had a copy of my own, I would be sorely tempted to place it into your hands and tell you that you "must" read it. I admit I would probably place that responsibility on your shoulders. And although you may see it differently, I would see only the gift I was giving you and not the burden of "making" you read something you may not want to read. But, as you are there and I am here...and I don't have my own copy in any event...I will only recommend it and leave the rest up to you.

Oh...just one last thing. Please...if you hate it...please don't ever let me know. That would be a little like that time I got that perm...and you said, "My...that's a new look for you, isn't it?" Some things are best left unsaid.