I started reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao about 100 years ago — or at least long enough ago that my only option for purchase was hardcover and I still smoked cigarettes. I know this because I found a piece of foil from an old pack of Camel Lights that I’d been using to mark a spot.
I loved the book. I loved the voices of the different characters: Dorky Oscar and the strong women in his life. A compassionate sister and a hardworking, kinda scary mom. And then I set it aside for a few minutes, a few days, a few months. Maybe I accidentally bought something newer or shinier or both and started to read that. Then came more new books. Lather, rinse, repeat. Regardless, through no fault of Oscar Wao (or author Junot Diaz for that matter) eventually I’d been away too long to easily slide back into the narrative. It would mean too much time playing “now-who’s-that-again?”
This is not the first time I’ve set aside a book I like, or even love. It took me a million tries to get through Don Delillo’s Underworld and that’s like my all-time favorite book ever. Electric Kool Ade Acid Test was dismissed as were Slouching Toward Bethlehem and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. And, honestly, I had about 50 pages left in Swann’s Way when I stopped reading — fifty pages that are keeping me from being A Person Who Has Read Proust.
But once I ditch a title, I’m reluctant to double back. The idea of retreading the same words seems counter productive to my goal to read every book in the universe. Every second new words are being made.
Must. Not. Linger.
The copy of Oscar Wao was settled onto a ledge at the top of the steps, just outside the bathroom door. (Near the Wallace and close to Didion and Wolfe.) I looked at the spine almost every day and always felt just the faintest tickle of guilt. Recently a new friend and I discovered we were both readers and we traded that proverbial “What’s your favorite?” Hers: Oscar Wao. (Mine, at least in that second: Underworld.) So the old novel was back in my brain. Then my Emergency Contact was looking for a good book, just a good book, and I recommended it to him. He ate it up and watching him read it looked so pleasurable that I decided to read it myself.
I sprinted through it, loving and laughing and totally in neck deep with the characters and the family curse. And then, with about 60 pages left, something happened. I’d just hit the last of the dog-eared pages when my copy of Meghan Daum’s new book came in the mail. I set “Oscar” aside and dove in face first, lapping up every sentence. If you’d ask me today, Delillo who? Meghan Daum is my favorite writer.
So here I was: About to pretty much diss Oscar Wao in the exact same spot I did 100 years ago. It seemed I was forever fated to not finish this super terrific novel. There it sat, next to my bed, for days. Ignored.
And then you know what I freaking did? I sucked it up. I let Daum simmer and jumped back into the Wao. And Wow. What a great novel.