Photo by David McSpadden
Over the years I’ve read and cherished many books that speak directly to my interests. A brief glance at my bookshelves reveals a few examples.
- People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
- American Woman by Susan Choi
- The Hours by Michael Cunningham
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
- Is This Tomorrow? by Caroline Leavitt
- Sleep Toward Heaven by Amanda Eyre Ward
- Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss
- Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
- Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
- The Temple Bombing by Melissa Fay Greene
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
- The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
It was easy for these authors to woo me as a reader. They wrote about topics in which I was already intensely interested.
But the kind of literary seduction I love most is when writers, through the power of their words and ideas, force me to care about issues or stories that hold no intrinsic attraction for me.
You made me love you. I didn’t want to do it.
The novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is one example. Thomas Cromwell? Henry VIII? Meh. But her writing drew me in immediately, and I devoured all three books in the series. Other examples include the novel Doc by Mary Doria Russell, the biography Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, and pretty much anything ever written by John McPhee.
Recently I’ve encountered two nonfiction books that fall into the category of literary seductions.
My latest literary seductions
One is Home Fires by Donald Katz. (Yes, audiobook lovers, that Donald Katz – the one who founded Audible.com. He had a distinguished career as a writer before he got the crazy idea that people would buy audiobooks over the Internet.)
At first glance I thought: 640 pages that chronicle four decades in the life of a Jewish family in America? No thanks; I have a Jewish family of my own. But in fact the book is riveting, and illuminated much about the decades of social and political upheaval everyone my age has lived through.
Another seductive book is The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson. The fact is, I don’t care about the soil (although I like to eat – and breathe). I come from generations of apartment dwellers, and I have never gotten the hang of gardening. But Kristin’s sparkling writing and clear, persuasive case compelled me to care – and made me understand both the promise and the stakes of what she called “our great green hope.” Full disclosure: Kristin is a friend of mine. But I read and loved her first nonfiction book, Stalking the Divine, (another seducer) long before I met her.
Why are we talking about this anyway?
I started thinking about this question of books you end up loving despite yourself because of a minor controversy I’d been hearing about on Facebook and Twitter. Apparently some guy wrote an article about how attractive 42-year-old women are. Many women writers thought the article was hilarious, and not in a good way.
If you held a contest to find a topic I would pay good money NOT to read about, the question of how middle-aged men perceive 42-year-old women would be a sure winner. The only way to make me care about it less would be to fold in something about sports or the stock market.
Yet I read an essay by a writer named Julie Checkoway that was a response to the original article, and her essay was so funny, wise and beautifully written that I’m still thinking about it, days later. Her essay may not qualify as a full-fledged literary seduction, because I still have zero interest in the original article or the kerfuffle it sparked. But I am grateful that the utterly boring controversy led me to discover her as a writer.
Have you been seduced by a book that at first appeared totally unsuitable for you? Do tell.