Title: Bound to Last – 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book
Author: edited by Sean Manning
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Publishers’ Blurb: In Bound to Last,an amazing array of authors comes to the passionate defense of the printed book with spirited, never-before-published essays celebrating the hardcover or paperback they hold most dear — not necessarily because of its contents, but because of its significance as a one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable object. Whether focusing on the circumstances behind how a particular book was acquired, or how it has become forever “bound up” with a specific person, time, or place, each piece collected here confirms–poignantly, delightfully, irrefutably–that every book tells a story far beyond the one found within its pages.
Not too long ago, in a pre-pandemic life, an excited writer came to me with an idea to write a book. It would have to do with asking a large number of writers in sf/f what they were reading and how it might be informing their process. It was meant to be a long term project so we built in room for churn. Since this writer was a full-time writer, I knew the research and analysis would fall to me. My exuberance spilled onto a Google spreadsheet code named Project Algorithmic Despotism – a bleak nod to the part algorithms play in the world, from buying books to getting routes as a gig driver.
The writer called my spreadsheet, “shiny.” And we plotted and planned what needed to be done. Several months later I asked if, not when, we would still be working on this book. The pandemic by then had closed the world and it just felt impossible we would be doing anything with it until things normalized. Devastatingly, the writer’s response was, “Remind me what book?” That they couldn’t even remember the pitch or the work we had already done shut me down nearly completely. For over a year, I didn’t read or write. What was the use?
But while still in the thrall of this project, I came across Bound to Last and thought it might give me some perspective and ideas about our own project. And to be completely honest, it was Ray Bradbury’s name on the cover which sealed the transaction.
The world is not post-pandemic yet as the Delta Variant makes its way through the willfully unvaccinated, putting us in danger again. In the process of jettisoning people from my life, including the reliably unreliable writer, I found my energy to read and write again.
30 authors, most of whom I’d never heard of, and 30 books, most of which I’d never heard of either. Their stories are of an unexpected book whose impact remains with them as it shapes their lives.
For Rabih Alameddine, whose The Hakawati I adore, the book was Harold Robbin’s The Carpetbaggers, one in common during our indiscriminate reading adolescences. Our love for Robbins probably lasted about the same time, about a year. Where I put it back on the shelf (library or otherwise, I don’t remember), Alamaddine kept his, until war swept through Lebanon and he was shipped off to boarding school in England. By then, his tastes in literature had changed, Robbins no longer a part of Alamaddine’s narrowing taste in literature.
It is the memory of that book which brings others to the fore. He and his mother sitting in easy chairs at opposite ends of the room reading. The Carpetbaggers holds a powerful place in Alamaddine’s heart. Memories of a lifetime of reading and an awareness of how he changed and evolved both as reader and as writer.
Upon his return to the bombed and charred childhood home, he finds his copy of the book. The one book not even the looters and thieves could bring themselves to steal. “I don’t know. I thought it was too dirty or something, I never saw it again.”
Then, at a dinner party, a friend brings a copy meant as a gag gift because Almaddine burst into tears when he received it. That copy remains on his shelves. A reminder of his childhood and all the memories wrapped up in becoming the writer, and reader, he is now.
While The Carpetbaggers was not something I would have figured Rabih Almaddine for, The New Professional Chef, Fifth Edition is exactly what I would have picked for Michael Ruhlman, whose books about the life and work of a chef I devoured. My housemate at the time became a devoted Food TV watcher and brought these gorgeous books into our home. Mostly I watched Anthony Bourdain with him, having little to no interest in learning to cook. Somehow, Bourdain’s friendship with Ruhlman influenced me to read the books.
For Ruhlman, the Fifth Edition, is the one which resonates the most. It came at a time when he pitched the idea of going to the Culinary Institute of America and learning to cook so he could write about becoming a chef. Waiting for an answer, he read The New Professional Chef, as gibberish. It made no sense to him.
Now, there’s a Ninth Edition. But it is the Fifth which reminds Ruhlman of where he started both as chef and writer about food, and where he is now, a highly acclaimed author who writes about food.
Such is the powerful memories of books, which lead us down the path of compare and contrast, looking to understand who we are now and why that particular book remains stuck in our minds.