As I am getting to awkwardly know someone I love to ask what their favorite book is. But having worked here I learned that my fellow booksellers hate being asked that question. I usually get one of three responses:
- I am given a look that is the equivalent to “????”.
- Or, I get the incredibly specific favorite. “Well, I would have to say my favorite Victorian era novel published in the year 1847 with a character named Mr. Rochester, would have to be…… Jane Eyre for sure.”
- Most of the time they just flat out ignore me, because, you know, it's obviously impossible to answer.
I understand though. For a really long time I never had a favorite book and loathed being asked. Like most people, reading for me was a way of escapism. I was a very Matilda type of kid (including the telepathy) but I never had a favorite until I was 20.
Like most juniors in college I was experiencing a real slump. I had just returned to Fairbanks, Alaska (a place I hated) after a real bummer of a sophomore year in Anchorage. Everything about trying to do any sort of schooling in Alaska is the worst. It’s dark and always freezing, your car is constantly breaking down, and classes are never, ever, ever canceled, not even for freezing rain. It's a real recipe for a mental breakdown.
The only thing getting me through it was my best friend Jonathan. We had met a few years earlier in an art history class and bonded over our mutual hatred for Banksy. The best word to describe Jonathan is simply “kind”. He had had an especially difficult life, but he tried really hard to see the good in all of it. A trait I hoped one day I would learn. There was something about our friendship that just clicked. We understood each other in a way that couldn't be explained. We could be around each other for hours and not ever say a word. It was like we were each others' therapy pets. The year prior he had broken his wrist shielding me from overly excited nerf welding students participating in a game of zombies vs. humans. Another thing we bonded over hating.
That spring, for some unfathomable reason, Jonathan and I decided to sign up for an 8 AM literature class. We stupidly figured all we'd have to do was show up and stay awake and we'd be golden. But to our surprise, the professor was hands down the coolest person we had ever met in our lives. He looked like he either played the banjo or was a werewolf. He was always walking into the room like he was mid-conversation, swinging open the door and with a sashay of his hips would immediately go to the black board. Using his whole body he would write a single discussion question that would take up the entire class. One time he was able to use a block of cheese as a metaphor for Hamlet. I loved just about every book we discussed in that class, but the last one we read, Tinkers by Paul Harding, quickly became my favorite.
Tinkers is a profoundly moving meditation on death and time. It begins with an old man, George Crosby, in the process of dying. As he drifts in and out of consciousness he thinks of his childhood in Maine, and as his time winds down, his memories intertwine with those of his epeleptic father and his grandfather, a crazed Methodist preacher. It's a beautiful, heartbreaking book. Before I wrote my final paper, I had read Tinkers four times. Most times it reads more like an epic poem than a novel, and that’s what I loved most about it.
Jonathan and I fell madly in love with that book and like a bunch of nerds we carried our copies in our back pockets. Just in case the opportunity rose to talk about it and we needed to reference it, or to force some unsuspecting victim to listen to us read from it. We spent countless hours after class with Professor Banjo-Werewolf in the pub getting overly ecstatic about the language. “Howard, by accident of birth, tasted the raw stuff of the cosmos.” (pg 47) Never have I ever read about a seizure sounding so beautiful before.
When the time came for our meetings with Professor Banjo-Werewolf to discuss our final paper, I was officially obsessed and brought note cards full of my favorite passages and discussion questions. As if we hadn't been spending the last couple of weeks talking about it outside of class. I had misplaced my own copy just days prior; lost forever in the black hole that was the art studio. I was devastated. At the time we only had one bookstore in Fairbanks. A favorite haunting of mine, but it was a used bookstore and ordering a new book usually took weeks. Besides, a new copy would be just that, new. When I mentioned this to Prof. Werewolf he pulled his own tattered copy from his bag and handed it over to me. I loved this copy dearly. Jonathan and I would spend hours flipping through it, discovering questions and theories and notes written in the margins. And occasionally we would find love notes from a woman named Gwen. He had several passages highlighted with the words “MUST READ OUT LOUD” written next to it, and that summer we did. We would take it hiking and camping with us. Take it up to the mountains and yell it from the rocky tops, our voices echoing around us.
And then Jonathan died that fall. Unexpected and heartbreaking. At his memorial I pulled out Tinkers and read his favorite passage to a crowd of unfamiliar faces, “be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it.”
It seemed fitting.
A couple of years later when I packed a duffel and a backpack and moved over 2000 miles to Seattle, I made sure two of the three books I brought with me were Tinkers: Prof. Banjo's copy, and the other, Jonathan's.
Professor Banjo's class made me a stronger and better reader, but Tinkers taught me the joy of sharing the love of a book with someone. Tinkers helps me remember that last year together as something a lot less tragic. It is more than just a novel to me, it's a way to live through those memories. As I flip through and read random passages, I remember laughing at Jonathan trying to impress Prof. Banjo at the pub. I can hear the familiar groan from our friends as we to once again randomly started quoting the book. And I can almost feel the breeze of the hot summer air as we yelled “IT DOESN'T STOP, IT SIMPLY ENDS”!!!! to the trees below us, our hands cupped around our mouths, our books heavy in our back pockets.