Music evokes powerful memories for me. So does reading a book. As I approach the 500th book I’ve read since January 1, 1996, I’ve been wandering through my list and it surprises me how much I can remember where I was when I read a particular book. Examples are always good, so here is a list of some of the books for which the location in which I read them was particularly memorable.
1. Virtual Light by William Gibson
This book predates my list. I believe I read this book some time in the summer of 1994, just after graduation from UC Riverside and a month or two before I started working for the company that I still work for. I was back at my parent’s house and I remember not wanting to sit around the house reading. So I drove out to Pacific Palisades and sat on a bench at a park at the top of the palisades that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. I read most of the book sitting on that bench over the space of a weekend, I think.
2. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
I spent the Thanksgiving weekend of 1996 at a friend’s house in Morro Bay, California. Their living room had a comfortable chair that faced windows that looked out over the bay. Morro rock was very prominent in that window. I recall sitting on a recliner for hours as the sun drew lower and lower in the sky and the sky shifted from an earthly blue to a Martian red. I barely noticed, however. I was captivated by Bradbury’s stories. It was, after all, the first time I’d ever read The Martian Chronicles.
3. Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg
The last time I had the flu–the actual flu as opposed to a winter bug that isn’t actually the flu–was the fall of 1997. I remember that for two reasons: (1) I had recently finished reading David G. Hartwell’s Age of Wonders; and (2) I was so sick, that I couldn’t get out of bed. I was in bed for a couple of days. I am generally not a stay-in-bed sick person, but I was just taken out by this flu. And ironic as it is, the thing that made it bearable was the fact that I’d just started reading Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, which I still consider to be one of the finest novels I’ve ever read. My bedroom melted away. My sickness melted away and for a period of several hours each day, I disappeared into the early 1970s in Manhattan and watched someone suffering much more than I was.
4. I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay by Harlan Ellison and Isaac Asimov
There was a big Christmas party on Christmas Day, 1998. I was still living in Los Angeles so there wasn’t snow on the ground or anything. But it was cool enough (in L.A.) to have a fire in the fireplace and while people partied all around me, I simply sat in front of that fireplace all day long, taking my time and reading through Harlan Ellison’s screenplay. I think it was the first screenplay I’d ever read and I was amazed at how much of the movie I could see in my imagination. And a decade or so later, I was utterly dismayed by the fact that the movie was finally made from a screenplay that compared to Ellison’s in the same way yellow-pages advertising copy compares to Shakespeare.
5. Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
I was on jury duty at the Hollywood district courthouse. I’d arrived early and sat in the parking lot, finishing up Clifford D. Simak’s City, which–at the time–I didn’t particularly like. (I’d like Way Station far more.) I’d tossed Starship Troopers into my backpack knowing I’d finish the Simak book. So when I finally went into the jury pool room and awaited my name to be called, I had the book with me. I generally don’t like reading when there is a TV on in the background, and of course there was a TV on because it has a pacifying effect on a crowded room. But as soon as I opened to the first page it all went away. If my name was called, I never heard it. Nothing existed for me that day except what Heinlein dictated.
6. John Adams by David McCullough
I started reading this book on vacation when I was visiting some cousins up in Castine, Maine. I could sit on the deck all day, with a view of the Penobscot Bay and all of the sailboats and lobster traps. And you could feel the history that surrounded you. I tore through that book at a mad pace. I probably made my best progress at night. I was in a back bedroom that was absolutely pitch dark and silent. I used a small book light, imaging I was reading by candlelight, the way that Adams and Jefferson did. It is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read and the best presidential biography I’ve read to-date. After the 9 hour drive back to New York a few days later, sad that I’d finished the book, I stopped at a bookstore on my way and picked up McCullough’s biography of Truman. I just didn’t want the magic to end.
7. ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
I’ve written before of how I did not like the first few King books I read. And ‘Salem’s Lot was the first. I loved the first two-thirds of the book, but when the monsters showed up, it turned silly on me. That said, I started reading it after a string of non-fiction. I picked it up because I needed something to read on the long plane ride back from Hawaii, where I was vacationing. So on September 8, 2001, I started reading and the book kept me absolutely captivated for the entire plane ride home. Indeed, looking back on it, it seems to me to have been the fastest plane ride I can remember. When I got home, there was a lot of catching up to do so I couldn’t finish the book right away. And then, three days later, the World Trade Center came down. So ‘Salem’s Lot was also the book I was reading when 9/11 happened.
8. Passage by Connie Willis
In one week, I’ll have lived in the D.C. area for a decade. So a little more than a decade ago, I was making trips out here for work, and looking for a place to live. On one such trip, I’d picked up Connie Willis’s Passage and started reading it. Like ‘Salem’s Lot, the book hooked me at once and I found it fascinating. Now, very few books actually scare me. In fact, I can think of only three stories that have send chills down my spine and made me feel uncomfortable being alone with them. The first was Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt.” The second was Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs.” The third is Connie Willis’s Passage. I can remember sitting in bed in my hotel room, reading the book, thinking to myself, this stuff is pretty scary, but I’m a big boy and this stuff doesn’t scare me. And yet I distinctly recall a childish desire to check under the bed and look in the closet before I went to sleep that night.
9. Lost Horizon by James Hilton
I took a month off in the summer of 2004. I was burning out at work and need some time to recoup. I traveled a bit, going up to New England, out to Los Angeles, and to Seattle–twice! And I read a lot during that summer sabbatical. On the final plane ride home from Seattle, I was sitting in first class (I had a lot of miles back then) and decide to read Lost Horizons, which I’d brought along with me, and which I knew began with a plane crash. (I like tempting fate that way.) Well, it didn’t work out quite as I expected. I didn’t really enjoy the amenities of first class, nor do I recall much of the plane ride because James Hilton took me to Shangri La instead.
10. Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda
In late 2005, I was once again vacationing in Hawaii–this time with some friends. We’d had a great week and it was time to go home. They’d left early in the morning. My flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until 10pm that night. I arrived at the airport around 6pm, with nothing to do. I checked into my flight and then found a bench to sit on outside. Lihue airport is mostly an outdoor airport. That evening, the trade winds were blowing. If you’ve never experienced the trade winds, I’m not sure any description I give can do them justice. But they were amazing. For three hours, I sat there, reading Alan Alda’s terrific book, with the wind rifling the pages and the sweet scent of exotic flowers in the air. I think if my flight had been canceled, I would have been delighted.
What about you? Any fond memories of where you were when you read a particular book?