I like the random, yet perfect, ways in which books often enter one’s life, and In Praise of Messy Lives is a good example. I was purging my inbox, unsubscribing to newsletters and was just about to consign the ‘Bristol Festival of Ideas’ circular to the same fate when the title of this book and associated talk caught my eye. I read more and was excited both by the book’s premise and Katie’s fierce gaze coming back at me from her author photo. She was giving a talk at Foyles bookshop, so I got tickets and also forwarded the information to my sister who I knew would share my interest. She replied immediately saying she knew Katie Roiphe through her book, The Morning After. My sister was unable to go to the talk, but pre-ordered the book.
I went to the talk and became an instant fan of Roiphe and the subject matter of the book of essays and articles. Unfortunately, I was broke and unable to buy the book, so it wasn’t until I actually got to read it, almost six months later, that I fully realised what a privilege it had been to be able to see her in person, talking so widely and knowledgeably. I remember skulking past the unjustly sparsely populated signing table, too overawed to speak to her and feeling guilty that I couldn’t support her by buying the book; too shy to speak to her to explain any of the above, or my regard for her.
That brings us back to my sister, the day after the talk her copy of, In Praise of Messy Lives arrived at her house, by pure chance, on the same day she had chosen to leave her husband and the life she had known for nearly twenty years; to ‘burn her whole life down’ as Roiphe puts it in the essay about her own choice to leave her husband. My sister read the book immediately and I think it fortified her – as books always have – for the challenge, both exciting and terrible, she had stretching out before her. The book came into her life at just the right moment.
It took me another six months to read it, as I generally have to work my way up to reading non-fiction (and also because I was preoccupied with my quest for the dominion over the Spanish language; I have mostly been reading favourite English books in translation, which although enjoyable on a linguistic level, in some ways took away from the joy of reading itself, as it became more of an exercise in reading, rather than reading for reading’s sake. Reading Roiphe, and her stylish, precise prose, made me remember to take joy in my native language, to enjoy it and not to think of it as some dumb thing that I acquired through accident of birth, to appreciate anew – crystallised through the experience winning the hard way, a second language – its richness and nuance, also, appreciate that I could appreciate it). The catalyst was a boring (intellectually speaking) Christmas retail job. I thought a book of essays would be more suitable to the job than a novel. I read the whole thing in three days and it was three days of being utterly consumed by Roiphe’s world. I would get to my ‘chalet’ where I was selling cider at a Christmas market, layer-up to keep the cold out, set myself up as comfortably as possible among the boxes and bottles with the book and my flask coffee, and read and read and hope no one would want to buy anything.
(The book had a really particular smell and it took me a while to realise that it was actually coming from the book itself. I didn’t know what it was or what exactly it conjured, but it made me feel happy. I still don’t know if the smell came from the book having lived with my sister, and so I associated the smell with her which was why it made me feel happy, or whether the smell was something the publisher injected into the pages and it made me feel happy because I was associating it with the happiness I was feeling at reading it, and how it was making me look forward to spending eight hours alone in a cold shed (sorry, chalet) through its brilliance. I still don’t know, as my sister hadn’t noticed the smell, but it did make me think all books should have their own scent – not just the scent of a book – because whatever that smell was, whenever I smell it now, out and about in the world, I will immediately think of Roiphe and be transported to those unexpectedly happy days in the cider-shed).
This year is going to be a big one for my sister and I, we are both burning our lives down and refurbishing them, differently, in Madrid. Reading someone like Katie, whose fierce intelligence and curious, analytical eye, as fierce as her own gaze, makes you want to do something bold and it is worth remembering, as we enter this new year, that – as a friend said to Roiphe, ‘You have one life, if that.’ So, ‘it might be good one of these days to make sure we are living it.’