I was going to spend this initial column introducing myself, kind of a ta-da and a laying out — in an opening-argument sort of way — of why anyone would really care what I have to say about books. But I got a little sidetracked. A few weeks ago, a dear friend passed away suddenly and unexpectedly.
Ben and I met because of books. In May of 1999, he was hired as a publicist at the environmental publisher where I was an editorial assistant, in Washington, D.C. To say we were opposites would be an understatement. I was serious and quiet. He was gregarious and charming — his arrival a jolt of adrenaline to our somewhat cloistered office of fewer than 20 people.
A couple of weeks after he started, we grabbed an after-work beer at Kramerbooks, an indie bookstore that featured a legit bar tucked behind the bookshelves. Though we both had English degrees (not uncommon in publishing), our areas of study barely overlapped. I’d concentrated on 19th-century British and American fiction, while his focus had been on modernist and postmodern poetry. What we did share was an intense passion for literature and a desire to introduce each other to works that the other hadn’t yet discovered.
Our email exchanges (composed at our 10-feetapart desks) were peppered with lines from Wallace Stevens, William Blake, and Herman Melville. He’d been surprised-slash-impressed when I’d told him that I’d read Moby-Dick … and that I’d read it more than once. We’d flipped through my marked-up copy, reading passages to each other.
One day, Ben handed me a well-worn paperback. “Read this.” He chuckled at some recollection of its contents. The bright artwork on the cover featured a not-svelte, mustachioed guy with a tropical bird on his head. It hardly looked up my alley. Yet, inside was one of the most guffaw-inducing, absurd (in all the right ways), brilliant books I’d ever read: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
In a park near Ben’s Adams-Morgan apartment, we read The Catcher in the Rye aloud, trading off every 10 pages or so. We got more than halfway through the book before we were both too parched and hoarse to continue. We had plans to take up where we’d left off — but we didn’t, and I later finished the book on my own.
That summer was the beginning of nearly 10 years together, during which Ben and I crossed the country and back, trying to find ourselves and having loads of adventures along the way. It was an intense and tumultuous relationship, off and on at times. When it ended for good, the love that remained evolved into a deep friendship.
We still chatted about books, but I was waiting to tell Ben about this column until I could send the published version to him. While I’m sad that I didn’t get to share it with him, here he is in it. Our story — particularly the beginning — is, I think, a perfect illustration of what I love so much about books (and, more recently, about owning a bookstore): how they bring people together, prompt meaningful discussion, change minds, inspire adventure, and broaden horizons. These are just some of the bookish things I look forward to exploring with you right here, in this and future issues. Until then, read on, booklovers.