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Randi Kreiss

Saving our sanity and our souls through books

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"A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies . . . The person who never reads lives only one.”

— George R.R. Martin

It nearly killed me. One of my grandkids said they “hate” books. They don’t read books except when one is assigned in school. Given the options of smartphones, TV and computers, they don’t ever crack the cover of a novel or nonfiction adventure, even during quarantine, when there’s so little to do.

Oddly, this kid gets good grades and likes school, which seems counterintuitive, because I can’t imagine anyone becoming an educated person in the world without reading books. It’s not like I haven’t tried. I have gifted and suggested books pitched toward this particular teen’s interests. I’ve read the same books they are assigned in class so we can talk about them. I keep tossing out lines and getting no bites.

My hope is that this child just hasn’t found the right books yet to get their attention. I know a few people who became enthusiastic readers in adulthood. I wish that for this young person I love.

Granted, I was a book nerd from the time I could put eyes on paper. I remember, in first grade, begging my father for some money so I could buy books. It was like falling in love. My first loves were “Half Magic,” by Edgar Eager, and “The Boxcar Children,” by Gertrude Chandler Warner.

It feels lame even to be defending reading when it seems so self-evident that through books we fire up our imaginations, we live other lives and we time-travel to places beyond our reach. We find comfort in finding common ground with writers. It is a bias, but I do believe that life is only half-lived without books.

As part of my own life, I have led book groups for the past 20 years, and this year will do so again. For the first time, our group will be Zoomed, and so it’s open to anyone who contacts the Longboat Key Education Center (941-383-8811, (charity@longboatkeyeducationcenter.com) wishing to sign up. We meet at 11 a.m. on Wednesdays, and began this week with the first of eight short books in eight weeks.

I want to share my reading list because I call my class “Literary Gems,” and these are. We begin with “Hamnet,” by Maggie O’Farrell. William Shakespeare had a son, Hamnet, who died when he was 11. Four years later, the bard wrote “Hamlet.” From these thin facts, O’Farrell weaves a rich story of grief and life in the throes of a plague.

Our second book is “We Have Always Lived in this Castle,” by Shirley Jackson. Murder, mayhem and the especially delicious brand of British madness abound in this story by the author of the most famous short story in the world, “The Lottery.” Next, we’ll read “The Boy in the Field,” by Margot Livesay, a luminous psychological thriller. Our last book for January is “Writers and Lovers,” by Lily King, a gorgeously written, rather ordinary story of a young woman finding her way, told with extraordinary beauty.

In February, we’ll read “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” by Ocean Vuong. This debut novel by a Vietnamese-American writer was described as “permanently stunning” by Ron Charles of The Washington Post. It is an original and exquisite amalgam of memoir, letters and poetry. Next, we read “The Disappearing Earth,” by Julia Phillips, comprising an astonishing cast of characters, an unspeakable crime, all set in Kamchatka, on the Siberian peninsula.

Our third book next month is “Trust Exercise,” by Susan Choi, a brilliant send-up of students enthralled with themselves in an artsy university setting. The language is pitch-perfect. Our last selection is “Last Train to Key West,” by Chanel Cleeton. It is 1935, and a ferocious hurricane is barreling towards the Florida Keys. A helluva story of three women caught up in a story of murder, betrayal and salvation.

For many of us “bookies,” talking about the novels and nonfiction works is as much fun as reading them, like a delicious dessert after a remarkable meal. So I hope some readers can join the book group. But no matter what, wherever you are at this moment, sheltering in place, working from home or venturing out, I want to share these special books with the hope that you connect with the authors and find solace and peace and joy in that connection.

Reading? The past year, when so much was lost, books brought joy into to my life. As the new year begins, they are the untapped treasure of 2021.

Copyright 2020 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.