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Searches and serendipity

Chances are that the books on your shelves all took wildly different

August 07, 2009|Julia Keller | Julia Keller is cultural critic for the Chicago Tribune.

Every book tells a story. Sometimes the best story it tells -- enthralling, astonishing, unexpected -- has nothing to do with the narrative concocted by the author. Surrounding every book is a meta-story, a radiance that shifts and changes with each set of hands that picks it up, flips impatiently through the opening pages and finally finds the page labeled "Chapter 1."

The extra story is how that book made its way to you in the first place.

Do me a favor. Take a look at the books on your shelves or your coffee table or your nightstand, in your purse or your backpack or your back pocket. Recall, if you can, how you first became aware of each one and, once aware, how you acquired it. Try to pinpoint the moment when a certain book intersected with your consciousness.

Some books, no doubt, were recommended by friends or colleagues or critics. Or maybe you found the book in the basement of your house when you first moved in, stuck in a dusty old cardboard box left by the previous owners, back by the hot water heater.

The tale of how a certain book came into your life is, in effect, a courtship story: The chance encounter, the first shy glance, the recognition of a shared sensibility and finally -- ah, bliss! -- the consummation.

Many and various are the ways that books spring into our hands. It's rarely a straightforward process, a fact that must give publishers fits. They spend millions on marketing, but in the end, books come to us through routes that are so specific and chance-ridden that even the savviest advertising strategy must, of necessity, be frustratingly imprecise.

Two events brought this home to me: The recent death of Frank McCourt, whose 1996 memoir "Angela's Ashes" became a success beyond the wildest dreams of McCourt or his publishers; and the fact that I recently stumbled upon "The Painter of Battles" by Arturo Perez-Reverte, published in paperback this year by Random House.

"Angela's Ashes" was a memoir about a dreary, impoverished childhood by an unknown public school teacher -- not, surely, the sort of pedigree that generally results in bestsellers -- and yet it sold some 4 million copies in hardcover alone. Somehow, this book followed paths to the doors of so many grateful readers -- paths that did not exist until McCourt's work carved them.

Had I not happened to be in Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, Ill., a couple of weeks ago, I wouldn't have found "The Painter of Battles," a magnificent novel. What caught my eye was the cover portrait: a scowling, unshaven soldier. What held me, though, was the story of a photographer specializing in war coverage who gives up his cameras for brushes.

"Painting, like photography, love or conversation," Perez-Reverte writes, "was like those rooms in bombed-out hotels -- all the window glass broken, all the contents stripped -- that can be furnished only with things you take from your own backpack."

Do we find books or do they find us? I look around the room right now and see a battered, mustard-colored copy of Henri Troyat's 1968 biography of Leo Tolstoy that I borrowed from a friend last year. Over there is a blue-jacketed copy of "(Woman) Writer: Occasional and Opportunities" (1988), an essay collection by Joyce Carol Oates, purchased at a small bookstore in Pasadena in 1992; the sales slip makes a nice bookmark. A copy of "Gulliver's Travels and Other Writings" by Jonathan Swift is a 1967 paperback edition published by the Modern Library, bought at a used bookstore for 85 cents; on the inside flap, I marked my territory, writing "Keller" in red ink. My copy of Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" is the paperback Scholastic Book Services edition that I've owned since sixth grade, featuring a bleak, moody, blue-and-gray cover. Willa Cather's "Lucy Gayheart" (1935) -- her best novel, no matter what anyone else tells you -- was snapped up for a song in Star Used Books, a small, crucial bookstore that once existed in Huntington, W.Va.

John Williams' "Augustus" (1972) traveled a long way to find me. It's the story of Caesar's nephew, Octavius, who takes over Rome after his uncle's assassination. Let's see: I'd read about Williams, who died in 1994, and tracked down one of his novels. Didn't like it. But years later, when I saw "Augustus" on the sale table of a bookstore in Washington, D.C., I bought it. I ended up loving this meditation on law and leadership, on "the hard necessity of fate."

I like to think "Augustus" waited for me until the precise moment when I was ready for it. And then it arrived, a bit dusty, a little bedraggled, but ready to dazzle. And then the path immediately folded up behind it, because no two books ever follow quite the same road to reach us. Like people, some stay for a short while; others, for a lifetime.

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