Brad Leithauser is one of those writers who feels like a friend; I've been reading his poems and critical work for years, and I've grown comfortable with him. I feel as if we've had an extended conversation, although, of course, I've only spoken to him in my mind.
Leithauser's essay for the New Republic, "Living on a Literary Calendar," recalls an afternoon in his college days when he read Kingsley Amis' "Ending Up" twice. Leithauser talks about how we associate life events with books being read at that moment, and cites several poems with a similar theme.
The piece got me to thinking about books I remember reading at certain times. For many books, I have no recollection of where I was or what was happening when I was reading them. Yet others are connected to a certain time, a certain place, a certain experience.
One of my most vivid book memories is reading Robert Pirsig's "The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" in Paris. I recall an afternoon sitting on a bench in the Tuileries Garden reading the book, periodically looking up at beautiful French mothers with their gorgeous French children, marveling at how calm they were compared with most American Moms I'd observed.
Several books stand out from my European trip that summer when I was a young man. That was my Graham Greene phase, when I read nearly all of his books in sequence. I don't recall if I'd carried the Greene novels with me, or if I bought some of them during my travels. I do recall an English bookstore discovered in Munich, and buying books there. On the train - yes, I was of that Eurorail Pass generation - I also read Malcolm Lowery's "Under the Volcano."
I also have vivid literary memories of Rome that summer, not so much reading, but of visiting the house at the Spanish Steps where Keats died and taking a taxi to the Protestant Cemetery to see the graves of Keats and Shelley. I'll never forget the chilly British woman at the Keats house, dressed in furs and tweeds, and carrying a Persian cat that she stroked constantly.
Earlier, on my first trip to New York City, I was trying to read William Gaddis' "The Recognitions," although I don't think I ever finished it. I remember certain characters and scenes from the book. That was the wonderful trip I gorged on Broadway plays: Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst, "A Moon for the Misbegotten"; Keir Dullea, Elizabeth Ashley and, yes, Fred Gwynne, "A Cat on the Hot Tin Roof"; Glenda Jackson, "A Doll's House"; Robert Preston, "Mack and Mabel."
At some point, I lounged beside the blue chlorinated water of a neighborhood swimming pool reading Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" while children screamed and plunged into the water.
When I was a magazine editor for a local government organization in Baton Rouge, I used to come home for lunch, during which I'd read a few pages of Marcel Proust's "Time Regained" before heading back to work. Reading the final volume of Proust's novel paid off years later when I was able to answer a trivia question from wonderful Atlanta poet Turner Cassity about what event, not eating a madeleine, triggered the narrator's last memories. The now aged character stumbles on a walkway en route to a party at the Guermantes' home, where he encounters rivals once threatening when young but now elderly and harmless.
One summer when I lived in Columbus, Ga., I read "The Education of Henry Adams," and also spent afternoons hitting wedge shots in a nearby park as young street urchins watched, the only gallery I've ever commanded as a golfer.
In a time of severe mental stress, I read Larry McMurtry's "The Last Picture Show" at my parents' camp at Bayou Pigeon, La. The camp house was a trailer, and I remember the intensity of the summer heat beating down on the thin roof and overwhelming the air conditioner. Another memory from college days: the Walker Percy craze on campus, which I joined by reading the novel everyone was talking about "Love in the Ruins," the plot of which matched an actual event of a sniper shooting from the top of a downtown New Orleans hotel, and "the Moviegoer."
In my childhood days, James Fenimore Cooper's "The Deerslayer," languidly read while on a family vacation in Destin, Fla. A history of the Battle of the Bulge. Robert Louis Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verses," which my mother bought for me at a PTA book sale at Glasgow Elementary.
And, "Kerry the Fire Dog."