An incredible 75 year-old discovery, or the joys of reading under pressure


Reading shouldn’t be something one feel pressured into, right?

It should be a pleasurable and, aside from special circumstances (school, work, etc.), a fully voluntary and free-flowing use of one’s time.

I’ve somehow worked myself into a bit of a corner, reading-wise and am feeling the pressure. As a bookseller, I want to be in-the-know about the noteworthy, challenging, thorny, off-the-beaten-path new books, those that I tend to find most rewarding. I have friends and customers who look to me for my recommendations along those lines. I also like to be able to talk with customers about some of the popular bestsellers. I like to always have at least two or three of those in my recommendations bank. I also like to maintain strong, responsive relationships with my publisher representatives. They send me books because they think I’ll like them and be able to help hand-sell them in the store. In exchange, I get a stream of (frequently) amazing books. It’s a win-win. But I want to always read and provide feedback on what they sent. It’s my part of the deal.

My to-read pile only gets bigger and I’m regularly feeling the pressure to make a dent in it.*

Add to this our monthly ICYMI book club. In the four months we’ve met thus far, the experience has exceeded even my most optimistic hopes when I conceived of it. The books have been fantastic and the discussions are even better: lively, really smart and insightful. We’ve got a terrific group of readers. You should join us if you’ve any interest. If you like to think about books and talk about books (and, frequently, laugh about books), you’d enjoy it.

However, the monthly selection is another reading obligation added to my almost overwhelming existing one. I know, I know. This is entirely self-imposed, but books I feel I need to read comprise almost all my reading these days.

hunterI picked up this month’s ICYMI book club selection, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, with little optimism. In my commitment to full participation in the group, I was going to read the darn thing even though there were many, many other books I also should be reading that I wanted to read more. Oh well, at least I could cross it off my near-fathomless pile of “classics” I’ve never read.

Sure, I knew Carson McCuller’s 1940 debut novel was considered a classic, but I have little interest in reading those paeans to the dusty, humid, simple nobility of the oddballs of the rural south that populate the literary landscape. With the knowledge that McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when she was 23 years old (and that it was an Oprah book club pick at one time), I was fully expecting a sad-sack tale of winsome, youthful longing, a 400-page slide guitar solo.

I was so, so wrong. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter rages. It’s the rage of the powerless, the voiceless. It’s the rage of the rioter: singular, but omnidirectional, at everything, but directed at no one. It’s punk rock.

Hunter is told from the shifting points of view of five main characters and their stories demonstrate how religion, democracy, society, capitalism, marriage and family are all forms of soft fascism, designed to constrain you with a false consciousness and tether you to an impossible binary: acquiesce to “your place” or be put in it. The only escape, McCullers seems to suggest, is death or, maybe, possibly, love (though it is unlikely).

This is hard, angry, bleak stuff. The fact that it was so well-received, both critically and commercially, upon its 1940 release (and through the ensuing years) is attributable to McCullers’ beautiful, unadorned prose and lovely voice. Her writing is warm and sad. It washes over you and carries you along. It flows.

McCullers demonstrates such deep, palpable empathy and understanding for her main characters, all flawed to varying degrees. Her ability to understand and achingly convey the complexities and contradictions within the hearts and minds of such wildly disparate characters (a middle-aged diner owner and widower; an aging African American doctor and father with an explosive temper; an itinerant adult male alcoholic Marxist wannabe-revolutionary; a fastidious, likely homosexual, deaf-mute adult man; and a 14-year old tomboy) is uncanny and charitable…

What’s been left unsaid is the insight and humanity in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a literary achievement for a 23 year-old. The truth is it would be an achievement for a writer at any age. Carson McCullers created a masterwork that burns with immediacy, with hard bleak truths and human understanding that are as relevant and relatable today as they were in 1940.

If it weren’t for the book club, I likely would have never picked this book up and I would have been the poorer for it. See, I need to be forced to pause in my voracious, always looking forward reading habits. I knew this when I suggested the premise for the ICYMI book club. Despite having a mapped-out reading schedule for (frequently) weeks in advance, maybe I don’t always know what I really want, reading-wise. A book I had to read became a book I’m incredibly glad I didn’t just never get around to.

How many other books are out there that I’d like this much and have heretofore missed and will never get to unless forced to? And what are?

Tell me.

(Seriously. I’d like to know.)

*NOTE: This is in no way a complaint. I’m drowning in terrific books to read. <sarcastic italics warning> Woe is me. Seriously, it’s amazing. I love what I do.

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