Some books, I believe, find us at times when we need them most. An unexpected surprise. Maybe when we are vulnerable. Hurt. Sometimes it’s a book that’s been sitting on a shelf for years. A forgotten gift. Perhaps it’s a worn copy of “Catcher in the Rye” found on a park bench. Or imagine the title “Dandelion Wine” resonating with a young girl who stumbles upon it, and now it’s her favorite novel.
This happens often, for many of us.
In February of 1997, I was living in a grey outskirt of Boston called Winthrop. I’d moved there three months prior with a friend. The decision was impetuous. I was navigated by naïveté, youth, and spontaneity – ingredients that did not make for a successful stay. It was frightfully cold. My roommate was depressed. I was broke. I worked for Barnes & Noble, and though the job provided a break from reality, the truth is I was miserable.
To break the monotony, I familiarized myself with the local public library. I enjoyed the walk there most of all. The air was fresh, despite the grey sky and threat of snow. The cemetery I passed along the way often brought perspective – weathered headstones dating back to the 1700s. The library was warm, well-used, and comfortable.
“The Secret History,” by Donna Tartt, found me on one of these trips. I did not seek out specific books, but rather I’d peruse the aisles, head tilted to read the titles. When I saw “The Secret History” – there were three copies – I remembered it as being a title suggested to me by a friend back home. There was something about the acetate cover. Even Ms. Tartt’s stark photo was intriguing somehow – her sharp black hair, her tailored jacket. I checked it out.
I am not a voracious reader. I wish I was. I wish I had been that kid who cozied up in corners, a stack of books at his feet. But I didn’t have the attention span. My love for reading progressed as I got older. Anne Rice. Stephen King. Agatha Christie. At 21, I thought I wanted to be a writer, but the truth is I had no idea what truly good writing was.
“The Secret History” changed that for me. I devoured it in two days. Then I read it again. The language fit me like the piece of a puzzle. The prose. The sentences. The story of six people my age. While reading, I didn’t have to think of my depressed roommate needing cigarette money, or the lumbering, mustached goon who lived with his wild-haired mother upstairs, always making excuses to come into our part of the house. I could crack that book open to any page and be satisfied. No 20 degree weather, or window-rattling gusts. I took it with me on the bus, the subway, to escape the treachery of bone-chilling rain, sleet, and weary travelers. I wrapped myself in the murder of Bunny, his friends – the culprits – and the dreamy intellectualism of a fictional college where students studied Greek and drank and drank and drank.
The book didn’t fix my situation. But it helped immeasurably. It was a favorite of a co-worker at the bookstore; we connected over it immediately. She was lovely. A literature hound. I will always remember her as looking like Kyra Sedgwick. She worked because she wanted to, not because she had to. “My husband is a lawyer, we do well, but if I have to wash socks and make meatloaf every day, I’ll slit my wrists.” When I made the decision to move back to California, she asked me to house sit her brownstone in the city. “I don’t want you leaving Boston without having experienced what it has to offer.” That week allowed me to walk the streets of a city steeped in history. I soaked up the culture, the food, and enjoyed every moment.
I realized during that week I genuinely wanted to be a writer. Those bleak months in Winthrop were no one’s fault, though I blamed my roommate for a long time after. The thing is, it was a trip that needed to happen. I needed the experience, the notches on my belt. “The Secret History” had to find me there.
There was no other way.