Some of the most pleasant memories I have and will ever have are of browsing in bookstores. I don’t mind the the big chains, I understand why they exist and why the small independent stores, most of them, are fewer and number and don’t live long when they pop up hopefully in artsy neighborhoods. So I cherish those small ones all the more when I find one.
On our family vacation in Estes Park a couple of years ago I happened on the Macdonald Book Shop on Elkhorn, the village’s main drag. I bought Jayne Anne Phillips’s most recent novel (which I really must get to sometime) and struck up a conversation with the proprietor. I don’t often ask for recommendations, but I wanted to spend more money there and didn’t see how I could go wrong.
At this point, my dreamy recollection from the musty stacks takes a left turn, because one of the books she recommended was one of the very worst books I have ever read, and I warned you about it here. So I was not particularly looking forward to reading the other one she recommended, So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger.
I read this book quickly to its conclusion (285 pages) and when I was done, I thought my, what a fine book. And then I thought: but what was the point? Was there a catharsis? Did the characters change? What explains its unexpected conclusion, and how does it illuminate the darker corners of the human condition? Was it intended to do so, or was I just tricked into reading something that was just a plot, a coupla guys who started out here, to whom stuff happened as they moved along, and ended up there, the end?
No, I don’t think I was duped. I felt enriched, as I do when I feel like I’ve ingested something of value and I think I will remember this book. But I will tell you that it perplexed me, and it perplexes me as I write these lines. This is one of those books that has a study guide in the back with a bunch of questions designed to guide the discussions of book clubs. I looked through them and as I did, I thought yeah, I should have noticed that.
Which makes me think that this is one of those books with hidden riches that are so skillfully hidden that I – who must read quickly and perhaps less reflectively than I should properly to honor the author’s art – would not experience them unless I worked at it. That’s not a criticism. I felt the book’s value as I read it, but I knew just as certainly that I wasn’t going to be able to articulate its lessons. But I feel that those lessons are there.
Perhaps you can experience them. But even if you don’t, it’s a fine read, and I commend it to you.