Inquiring minds might be saying around now, how long am I going to have to keep looking at that blog post about jury duty? Sure, it’s important, but litlove has already chewed up most of western literature in the amount of time it took you to talk about a single trip to the museum and the occasional jury duty summons.
It’s true. I’ll just say it now. I have been slacking. That weekend in L.A. and the one before it in Monterey rearranged my usual somewhat diligent DNA into a big ball of relaxation and sloth. It is also spring here in northern California in a major big way.
But that’s over now. I’m past jury duty and on to another institution — this time a local one — an institution that I really love, and learned to love more this morning because it resulted in not one, but FOUR, great book recommendations.
The institution is called Casual Carpool. That’s the name for the line that forms near the Safeway supermarket just down the hill from my house . It began informally when most of you were mere children, as a way for solo drivers to take on two passengers and then zip triumphantly and smugly over the Bay Bridge in the carpool lane, which is reserved for cars with three or more occupants.
Now, it’s become a bona fide force in the transportation scheme around here. There’s a sign in front of the Safeway, and even a few rules about Casual Carpool — mainly, you can’t play really idiosyncratic music and you can’t talk too much to the passengers you pick up. In turn, the passengers are not allowed to tell you which route to take to get onto the bridge on days like today when there was more traffic than I’ve ever, ever seen in my entire life. Ever.
Okay. 8:32 a.m. I pick up rider number one. A truly stunning young woman who, I realize when she says good morning, comes from some relaxed and wonderful country in Africa. She is sweet and does not care in the least what sort of music I play. (I know this because I actually asked her, just so I could hear her accent again.) She sits in the back and for the rest of the trip I’m about to describe simply looked out the window and smiled.
Second passenger is, more or less, the white rabbit. Nervous. Twitchy. Cute. In his forties or early fifties. Nice scholarly glasses. When I asked him if he wanted to put his briefcase in the back seat, because it looked too large for his lap, he snapped, “NO.” Yikes. Is there something illegal in there? How illegal could it be? He’s wearing those professor glasses and he looks so otherworldly. Is he smuggling into the U.S. a copy of Colm Toibin’s latest book, a book that’s only available in the UK?
The next thing that happened occurred because I was flustered, in my defense. But somehow, I took the very, very stupidiest way you can take to get on the bridge. The carpool lane was inaccessible because there was so much regular traffic in the way. As we crawled along, my chagrin grew. We were not zipping by the foolish people who try to get to San Francisco alone in their cars — and zipping, believe me, is the whole reason for taking these strangers into my car. It got so bad that I found myself wishing I’d brought something to offer the white rabbit and the African beauty to make up for my stupidity: coffee, cookies, a nice scone. Alas, I had nothing and I felt it would only increase my discomfort if I apologized more than the seven times I’d already apologized. Silence spread through the car like vegemite. (That is for you Charlotte.)
Suddenly, the white rabbit barked. Actually, dear reader, he laughed. He was enjoying his book. By this time, normally, I’d have dropped him off. But because of the traffic and my chagrin — two things not notable for producing anything pleasurable — I actually discovered some pretty wonderful things, things that I wormed out of him as I tried to distract everyone in the car from the fact that we seemed to be moving backwards rather than forwards.
My method was simple: first, I asked him about his reading preferences. He was clearly an intense reader because he told me that although the book that had made him bark/laugh was not that great, he makes it a habit to finish a book he starts. Novels, he likes novels, but he sometimes has trouble finding something really good to read, having read so many.
Now, I’ll admit that he did not ask me about my reading preferences. It is my experience that true readers are actually somewhat rare and they assume that most people do not read Good Things, so they don’t even get into book conversations. Or maybe he didn’t want to talk to me because he hated the way I had chosen to get across the bay to San Francisco.
Whatever. All I know is that I felt it important to make some statement that would telegraph, I am a Serious Reader, but not a perfect one. That way, we could talk until we got to the city. My method of establishing my cred was a bit crude, but highly effective: I confessed that I too liked to read but was having trouble getting through Ulysses.
This had an immediate impact on the white rabbit. He sat up straighter and became … friendly. Not someone who was mean and barking and short tempered and smuggling something illicit in his briefcase. In short, he was a book lover and so was I. Enough said. Well, actually, more was said. Soon, we were on to the topic of his dissertation (he had been to graduate school in English and left short of his dissertation to become — what else? — a lawyer): Evelyn Waugh. From Evelyn Waugh we ventured over to Siegfried Sassoon’s series of fictional memoirs that White Rabbit said was wonderful. And I believed him because he was On Fire about them.
Paul Fussell, he said. You’ve got to read, Abroad, a wonderful book about travel writing before the war. And then he offered this tidbit: You really should read Ellman’s biography of James Joyce. Better than any concordance for setting the scene with Ulysses. And, by the way, skim and skate over the surface of that book without guilt. You will get wonderful things from Joyce as long as you don’t try to wring every last bit out. Leave a little for the next time you read him.
And then, finally, as he was getting out of the car, he offered me his final suggestion, the way you’d hand someone a bouquet of lovely spring flowers, W. Jackson Bate’s biography of Samuel Jonson. You’ll like it and it will enlarge your reading considerably. And then he was off, dear reader, leaving me scrambling for a pen to get down all those great suggestions.
Turns out I’m done slacking. I went over to Booksprice and Amazon and ordered every single thing he recommended. Next month is my casual carpool reading month.
Sitting up straight now, BL