Library Serendipity Posts

I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life. I started working when I was 16 in a clothing store. I didn’t like it. I thought folding shirts over and over was boring. I did learn a lot of classic rock because that is what Bob, the manager, loved to play. Green-eyed lady, ocean lady. I liked what we sold in the store, very 90s surfer/skater high school clothes. Big, thick Champion sweatshirts with the long cuff, Billabong shorts and Quiksilver T-shirts. But it was a good job for an 11th grader. My friend worked in the Kids R Us in the same strip mall and our other best friend worked in Baskin Robbins in the center of town. There she would make us tiny sundaes on the tasting spoons and when no customers were in the store, for entertainment, she’d lightly smack the hanging bunch of bananas and we’d watch a cloud of fruit flies softly emerge.

Around the time I was first looking for a job, just before I started at the clothes retailer, a brand-new Barnes & Noble was built on Route 22 near where I lived. In 1991 or 1992, being a suburban New Jersey kid, I had never heard of Barnes & Noble (which is hard to believe now) but my mom had. She took me to interview thinking it would be a good fit for a crazy bookworm such as I was. I didn’t get the job. I think they thought I was too young and inexperienced.

Eventually I went to college. I tried to get a job in a local bookstore. The owner was a large, intimidating (to me), older man. He asked me what the last book I had read was. It was 1995, or so, and I answered truthfully. It was Interview with the Vampire or The Vampire Lestat or one of those delicious Anne Rice books that I was really into at the time. (I have since given them all away except for Violin which I keep because Anne Rice signed it.) He said, “Yeah, you and everybody else,” and dismissed me. I got into my red 1990 Chevy Cavalier and quietly drove away. He had no idea of the depth and breadth of my reading but gave me no other chance to prove myself. I was not outspoken and didn’t stand up for myself in most situations back then. I was easily steamrolled.

I ended up working in the tiny candy store in the college town’s little mall. I loved working the cash register, helping customers, wrapping up little chocolate treats from within the case, weighing bags of jelly beans and even counting out the till at the end of the day. Labeling myself as an English and humanities person, I always thought I was hopeless at math, but I loved learning all the little math tasks that go into running a small business. I discovered there was a little more math potential in me than I had thought. I was often left alone to run the store for my whole shift and often had to close and lock up for the night. I developed a sense of responsibility and capability that I’m grateful for. It was a good job.

I’m going down this memory lane of work to prove to myself that I have always and still do work. I have been labeled a stay-at-home mom for the last fourteen years. And yet, is that true? I quit teaching first-grade when I was pregnant with my son, my first child. He was born in August and I did not return to school after that summer. Instead, when he was a few months old, I started taking Wilton cake decorator classes at the Michael’s store. (I also took an improv acting class during that time.)

After taking all three courses (there are four now, I believe), I got a job at that same Michael’s teaching the class. After my husband came home, I would load up my three-ring binders, my super-heavy stand mixer and my example cake into the car and drive to Michael’s. Once there, I would use one of their tiny red shopping carts to push all my stuff into the corner classroom. I also did demos out in the store on occasion.

I have called myself a writer for most of my life. I have always been obsessed with books. I was so hungry for them that I taught myself to read by age four so I didn’t have to wait for someone to read to me anymore. And so during the time that I taught cake decorating, I was also going to writer’s conferences. I dabbled in my own writing, never taking it seriously and continued journaling as I had been doing off and on since age ten. Around this time I also started volunteering for our local, awesome, non-profit writing organization.

About a month before our daughter was born in 2007, I got a job as bookkeeper for the non-profit writing organization. I would work as bookkeeper from home, part-time for the next six years. And yet, why did I still consider myself and label myself as a purely stay-at-home mom? I was being paid for work. Was I not respecting my own work? I didn’t work full-time at an outside location. And for that reason, I often felt a little bit less than. A little bit ashamed. But why did I care? What did I not like about being labeled a stay-home mom? And why did I care what other people thought of me and my choices?


What makes me go down reading trails? Sometimes I read a book and that’s it. My next book will be unrelated. But sometimes, I read a book that puts me on a reading trail. It funnels me down, drops me on a path, and gives me clues to follow from book to book. It is then that I want to make curricula for myself replete with field trips. I want to read the fiction, then nonfiction, and/or biography on the topic.  I want to research the time period and find out about the zeitgeist and the contemporary culture. I want to know what people generally knew and see what they saw. I want to visit their locations and experience some of what they talked about. I want to inhabit what I’m reading about.

This particular reading journey began in the summer of 2018 with Nathaniel Philbrick’s Second Wind and Moby Dick. I received Second Wind and Away Off Shore, a history of Nantucket by the same author, on June 1. I already had Moby Dick, sitting brand new on a shelf for months.  

I had been researching writer’s lives, daily practices, routines, schedules, and research processes.  As a form of Resistance, admittedly, but also learning. I looked up Nathaniel Philbrick, Laura Hillenbrand, Hampton Sides, Jon Krakauer, Susan Orlean, Sebastian Junger, David McCullough, Stephen Ambrose and Erik Larson. I fell upon Nathaniel Philbrick’s interview in The Paris Review and became intrigued that Second Wind was not only about his competitive sailing comeback, but also Nantucket itself. (I love a comeback story or any story about anyone doing something at a later age than the youth everyone expects.) I hadn’t really thought much about Nantucket before. I had never been there nor Martha’s Vineyard. I felt a deep dive beckoning.

It took me all summer to read Moby Dick. Laugh-out-loud funny at times, other times amusing, amazing, fascinating, surprising. It’s full of history, science, stories within stories, musings, observations, drama, and weirdness. I had to follow Herman Melville somehow. I also read Florida by Lauren Groff and The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr in that time.

Next I read Why I Read Moby Dick and In the Heart of the Sea both by Nathaniel Philbrick to get the real story. And then I couldn’t not plan it. I had to go to Nantucket. I had to walk the waterfront streets of New Bedford. I had to sail down the Acushnet River, through Buzzard’s Bay, past Woods Hole and out into the open ocean. Ishmael stopped at Nantucket and left from there but Herman Melville himself bypassed Nantucket and only visited there later.  He talked to Captain Pollard of the Essex. I sought out Captain Pollard’s house which is not hard to find. And it’s across the street from the house Melville stayed in when he did visit Nantucket. Then we found first mate Owen Chase’s house which is privately owned and not at all publicized as being affiliated with any known figure in history. We stood across the street at what is a fairly busy intersection for the Town of Nantucket and looked up at the attic where he hoarded food later in life. The backyard is filled with stuff.

In New Bedford, MA, we stood outside of the Seaman’s Bethel (the Whaleman’s Chapel in Moby Dick) and stood on the cobblestones out front just as Melville once did. The church has burned and been rebuilt since he was there but I still get what I call “history feeling” when I am the former presence of someone I’m studying.

Revering people just because they came before. Why do I do that? Is it the notion of continuity that I am drawn to? That we are not something new, despite all of our technologies, stress and drama?  If you trace the days back and back, eventually you will reach the time of Herman Melville, of political turmoil that is a hallmark of human life, of human cruelty but also of human wonder and effort.  And Melville will be standing there as Harriet Tubman would be standing there.  Real, alive, textured with hunger, sadness, a chill, laughter, worry, fear and a smile.  That’s what I love about history. We often think of periods of time as being over and completed. We are no longer in the Colonial days of Benjamin Franklin. The Depression is long past, and no one wears poodle skirts and saddle shoes much anymore. Yet these examples are in terms of events and styles. Historical events and styles do come to an end, but time itself never stops. The days of Benjamin Franklin have rolled steadily along, in sunsets and sunrises, leading up to this very moment. The days and nights simply continued.

We pass history every day. We blow by all the echoing footsteps of the people who walked before. Their worries, fears and doubts and their smiles and memories were real. No different than ours.


me 1983

First and foremost, I am a reader. A lifelong bookworm.

I also write. This outlet is meant to help me keep track of my obsessions as I sound the depths of different topics and subject areas for my writing and my curiosity.

I read widely and yet, of course, I have gaps. This year I plan to fill in some of those gaps with books I feel are egregious omissions from my reading life and also with books in genres I have not yet delved into very deeply.

I am a great lover of lists and look with fascination every January at all the reading challenges that pop up among book bloggers. I never do them because my reading is either desultory, with one book leading to another in kind of an organic way. Or else my reading is determined and planned, and I’m in a deep dive into a topic that sparkles in front of me as I chase it down a twisting path. I am not good at reading books assigned for a book club or following up on recommended reading from other people right away. I am grateful for books given to me, but they may sit awhile until they fit into my reading schedule of the moment.

Still, I am drawn to the idea of working one’s way methodically through a list, a program, a book, a course, a challenge, etc. I once set out to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winners for Fiction/Novel since that award’s inception in 1918. I got up to 1938-The Late George Apley by John Phillips Marquand. I stopped, but I plan to pick that up again sometime. I have a purple Trapper Keeper folder that I have been keeping book lists in since high school. It comprises clippings from newspapers and magazines, lists printed from websites, photocopied bibliographies of books, and handwritten compilations of my own devising.

Here I plan to see some of my goals and desires come to fruition. I’m tired of planning, setting goals and intentions and then watching them recede off into the distance, forgotten and left behind. So this year, 2019, I set off with some goals in mind.

  1. To fill in the gaps of my reading by using Jane Smiley’s book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel and trying to keep up with one of the book challenges out there. All the while, I need to be reading as much as possible the books I already own that I haven’t read yet and that fit the criteria for the book challenge, whichever one that turns out to be. As of now I’m interested in Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge and the 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge.
  2. I would like to visit every state park in Virginia this year.
  3. I have folders, piles, and 3-ring binders full of recipes that I have compiled over the years from magazines, newspapers, and the internet. I would like to cook through those as much as possible this year before turning to my cookbooks or internet searches. Then I can recycle the ones I’ll never make again, and be left with only the core favorites and much more organization.
  4. To watch all of the Studio Ghibli movies.
  5. To dive deeper into the works of Terrence Malick. I have seen A New World  and Tree of Life.
  6. Restart and finish Classical Music 101 which I have had for 14 years. I used to go out to the car and listen to the music during my son’s nap. Now he’s in 9th grade. I also have Jazz 101 and Opera 101. Would like to do those, too.
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