You take it down and begin to browse. You stop to fix dinner for your husband, who, an invalid of high modernism, cannot fix it for himself. But you’re back at Wentworth until four a.m., when you end up at the bottom of the South Downs gravel pit, 1920, your throat feeling as if you’d been taking swabs at it with a pipe cleaner. You don’t know what hurts more: the swirling moral turbulence of the book, or the belated discovery that everything you thought about it was wrong. You missed it all: register, mood, irony, ambiguity, subtleties, of characterization, narrative arc, even basic plot points. You can’t read. It’s like finding out, at thirty, that you’re adopted.
You’re not yet sure that it’s great literature. But the thing took you underwater and held you there for the better part of thirteen hours, and two days later you’re still winded.
It’s the story of a relationship between a reader and a book, and how that relationship changes over time. And it’s every bit as gripping as any story of any relationship. I loved this story. Yes, I know: it’s second person, for god’s sake! It’s gimmicky, with all those questions at the ends of each section! Yes, and yes. And I love it. Deal with it.
The relationship starts when the unnamed narrator (or, “you” – it is second person) is in England for a college semester – “Year One of a life newly devoted to words” – and comes across a book, To The Measures Fall, in a junk shop. Doesn’t that just sound like a book title? Opaque, elegant. It’s a nice-looking book, tooled leather cover, “a sweeping portrait of rural England before and after the First World War.” The author is unknown, but the first sentences generate interest. It’s overpriced, however, and this student is, as students often are, on a tight budget.
The shop’s owner is a beaked old man with a gray hairline like a a cowl slipping off his head. It’s humiliating to bargain with him, but you’re desperate.
How much do you offer the junk store owner for his used book?
You are, by the way, female. Lots of folks think you shouldn’t be out biking alone, even in the Cotswolds,. See pages 214 to 223 of Mr Wentworth’s epic.
How much would you have offered for the book had you been male?
I’ll admit, he got me. I’d been thinking of the second-person narrator as male, partly because the writer is male, and partly because, well, I’m embarrassed, because she seemed independent and adventurous and therefore male. You think you’ve developed some sense of equity and find out, nope, not really. I could blame it on the time period (spring of ’63, when college girls were not independent or adventurous, and rarely went bicycling, certainly not alone through the English countryside). I was a little peeved. But he got me fair and square.
That is, by the way, the gimmickry of this story: at the end of each section, there’s a question in bold. I’m fascinated by this: is the writer asking the reader? The narrator? Is the narrator asking the reader? Is the narrator asking herself, is it a rhetorical question? I love it.
The story continues with the student, having purchased the book in spite of the price, returning to the States, and being faced with a decision: only forty-four pounds of luggage is allowed, so which books to leave behind? She debates: Who knows how long Updike will be read? (hah!) Some might be hard to find. And the final question of this section: “Choose which two books get dumped forever.” I find it an engaging technique. And haven’t we all gone through similar choices, when our bookshelves sag and we must clean out a little space.
We follow the student in this way through grad school, marriage, abandonment of her thesis, switch to law school, divorce, career, remarriage (“to a big police-procedural fan in corporate litigation”), children, aging, retirement, discovery of a terminal illness. Historical landmarks are provided to keep us oriented (the Gulf of Tonkin, Somalia) and to some degree trends in literature are noted as well. Mostly, though, the woman keeps encountering the book, re-reading it, imagining a signature on the cover is Churchill’s (the signature turns out to be that of a sheep farmer named Cleanleach), reading it to her daughter, reissue and a movie starring Emma Thompson. She keeps seeing different things, new things, every time she reads it. Don’t we all have books like that? Because that’s what reading is: books interact with us, and since we are different throughout our lives, since we know different things and see the world through different lenses as our experiences pile up, since the world itself is different and what once seemed absurd suddenly is taken for granted and vice versa, we read the same book differently over time. All of our relationships, after all, change over time.
It ends with our student, more than forty years after we first met her, on her deathbed, struggling to read a few pages:
This time, the book is about the shifting delusion of shared need, our imprisonment in a medium as traceless as air. It’s about a girl who knew nothing at all, taking a bike ride through the Cotswolds one ridiculous spring, mistaking books for life and those roiling hills of metaphor for truth. It’s about a little flash, glimpsed for half a paragraph at the bottom of a left-hand page, that fills you with something almost like knowing.
A freak snow hits late that year. You lie in bed, an hour from your next morphine dose, your swollen index finger marking a secret place in the spine-cracked volume, the passage that predicted your life. For a moment you are lucid, and equal to any story.
Score the world on a scale from one to ten. Say what you’d like to see happen, in the sequel.
Powers wrote this story as part of an assignment he gave a class he was teaching: write a story that blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction. I’m not sure that’s how I’d describe this. But I’m glad he wrote it anyway.