I reach toward the glossy cover. Ooh, the latest Chet and Bernie mystery.
I stop myself. Stay focused.
I drag myself from the new releases and continue to the hardcover stacks, looking down at the scrap of paper in my hand. On it I scribbled a list of four books written by authors when they were under the age of twenty-five. Reading one of these titles is the first of twenty-four tasks in the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge. That’s why I’m in the library on my lunch break, but I’m distracted from my purpose by all my familiar favorites.
I haven’t read any Rizzoli and Isles in a long time. Maybe I could . . . I pick up my pace. It wouldn’t be a challenge if it were easy, I remind myself.
I locate the shelf where the works of Zadie Smith are lined up. Her name is familiar in a different way. I once prided myself on knowing serious authors like Smith. As an overweight teen growing up in the country, I didn’t want to be just another hick. I immersed myself in literature, trying to better myself by reading the classics. While my peers indulged in Sweet Vally High, I worked through the oeuvre of Thomas Hardy. Instead of the latest bestsellers, I opted for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I chased after the honorific of “well-read” as if it were a beauty pageant crown because, heaven knows, I was never going to don a tiara.
Somewhere along the way, I wearied of the heavy reading. After college, work taxed my brain power. After marriage, motherhood stole the time I once devoted to tomes. Then came the day when I asked, I’ve lived this long without reading The Grapes of Wrath, why bother with it now? I settled into novels with Inspector Morse and his British brethren, the all-American PI whodunits, the forensic procedurals featuring Brennan and Scarpetta, and the frothy fun of Stephanie Plum mysteries. I found comfort in following series in which I knew the characters and all their quirks. I stopped being a book snob and settled into the guilt-free pleasure of popular fiction.
Yet, amid the comfortable and familiar, I lost opportunities to view life from diverse perspectives, to virtually travel across the globe, to learn about different cultures, and to stretch my mind. I’m not sure I realized this when I accepted the Read Harder challenge. Twenty-four books? No problem. I read twice as many books in a given year. But when I looked through my pile of used paperbacks, I realized how my homogeneous my selections were.
I don’t find Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, on the shelf so I hunt for the next title on my list. No luck. I move over a few shelves and locate the third book on my list: The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi. I know nothing about Oyeyemi or her book until I read the dust jacket. Her debut novel, completed before she turned nineteen, incorporates the mythology of her native Nigeria. The eight-year-old protagonist, Jess, spends hours reading Shakespeare.
I check out the book and head back to work, thinking about how, without this challenge, I would never have picked it out. Now I get to travel to a new country, meet Jess and an assortment of other characters, and see the world through their eyes.
Maybe this challenge won’t be that hard after all.