I have been reading the same book for nearly a year. I sit and read one page, every day, and in so doing, it has become a true friend to me. I’m actually a little concerned about how much I will miss this book when my year with it is up.
This book—my friend— was given to me by another friend, the poet Kevin Craft, who presented it to me at the 2014 Annual Mullin White Trash Christmas Party. I cracked open the tome the very next day, December 14, and quickly learned that Shirley Jackson, author of The Haunting of Hill House, was born on that day in 1914. I also learned that in 1999 Charles M. Schulz retired from penning his classic cartoon strip Peanuts. He would be dead by the following February.
A Readers’ Book of Days by Tom Nissley is an addicting almanac of literature, charmingly illustrated by Joanna Neborsky. It engagingly details not only what happened to authors on particular days, but also, and perhaps more importantly, what happened to their characters. We all know that Julius Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March, and most of us know (or should) that Leopold Bloom began his vast single-day adventures on June 16, but how many of us know that the wedding that kicks off The Godfather occurred on the last Sunday in August 1945?
Nearly a month into my ritual of reading a single page every morning with my coffee I learned that in 1873, Herman Melville’s brother-in-law lobbied the Secretary of the Treasury to see if anything could be done to make the author’s job as a customs inspector easier. This was twenty years after “Bartleby the Scribner” was published, and twenty-two since Moby Dick first surfaced. In July I learned that on the 16th of Germinal in Year II the poet Fabre d’Églantine was executed in the revolution for which he helped invent an entirely new calendar. He handed out his poems on his way to the guillotine.
Stories like these especially spoke to me, freshly laid off from my day job of seven years and recently retired from theatre to begin writing in new forms. 2015 loomed ahead of me with an intimidating unknowable newness. Still, if Melville could defy obscurity two decades after Moby Dick, and if d'Eglantine could still earnestly offer his poems even as he tumbriled towards death; then who was I not to soldier on in my privileged circumstances. And so, in addition to introducing me to all kinds of cool books, from Cloud Atlas to the The Time Traveler’s Wife, with his own singular book Tom Nissley helped remind me that success and failure as an artist are just painted-on illusions. All you can really hang your hat on is the work, and the earnest offering of its product.
Books are like people: it’s easy to love the general idea of them, but in reality there are just too damned many to know or care about. There are books with which you had wild youthful affairs. (Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and John Gardner’s Grendel leap to mind for me.) Ones that you treasure fond memories of, but understand you’re unlikely to revisit in middle age (Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces), and then there are the books you live with, day upon day, in something not unlike happy matrimony (Coleman Barks’ versions of Rumi for me as well as The Ancestor’s Tale, by the brilliant, but lately somewhat loathsome Twitterer, Richard Dawkins; and Jorges Luis Borges’s hat trick: The Fictions, The Non-Fictions, and The Selected Poems.)
This Friday at 7 p.m Tom Nissley will be celebrating the paperback editon of A Reader’s Book of Days at the warm and welcoming shops he owns, Phinney Books. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must inform you now that I have since I introduced myself to Tom as a fan. And I like to think that we have begun a tentative but promising new friendship. Indeed, I asked him to write a blurb for the back of my soon to be published book, The Starting Gate, and he surprised me when he told me it would be his first time.)
As artists, as humans, we cannot know the true measure of our gifts; that’s for others to understand. Kevin Craft couldn’t know what the book he was bringing to my raunchy Christmas party would mean to me over the following year, and Tom Nissley couldn’t know one of the people he would reach so profoundly was the guy who wrote the deeply weird play about angels and sub-atomic particles he saw at a black box in Belltown in 1992. We offer what we offer and we hope for the best. Through Kevin and Tom this best of books changed my last year for the better. And now in turn I’m offering you this piece of advice: go if you can on Friday to Phinney Books and purchase yourself a copy of A Reader’s Book of Days.
Who: Tom Nissley
What: A Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year
When: Friday, November 6, at 7 p.m.
Where: Phinney Books, 7405 Greenwood Ave N, Seattle, WA 98103
Why: Because you’ll be achieving several great things in one small, fun, and easy package: buying a great book directly from the author, and in doing so supporting local literature and local booksellers, and finally you’ll be celebrating authors throughout the ages that worked hard so you’d have something interesting with which to pass the years of days.