Saturday, September 09, 2006



I'm just back from the Festivaletteratura, Italy's largest literary festival and what may soon become a required stop for anyone who wants to bookend their summers between the Hay festival and a trip to Italy. Like Hay, it's held in an impossibly gorgeous old town (Mantova). But because Italian bookstores are dense with translated work -- the children's author Bianca Pitzorno estimated to me that roughly 70% of their bestsellers are foreign translations -- it means that there's a very noticeable international presence among the authors there. Aside from yours truly, David Sedaris, Julia Kristeva, and Jasper Fforde were all in town for it too.

So, really: you should go next year. It's pretty awesome.

The first thing I learned in Italy: apparently most of my readers are there, and not America. Who knew? This is the first time that I have ever sold out an event, or been ambushed by photographers at the door.

The second thing I learned: even if you're not particularly fond of coffee, it is possible to become addicted to really well-made cappuccinos.

The third thing I learned: that I cannot recommend five books to anybody.

Bizarrely, in the course of 10 interviews in a row on Wednesday alone -- a guaranteed way to lose your grip on reality, incidentally -- I was asked 5 times in succession: "Name 5 books that everyone should own." The first to throw this spanner into my gears was a TV crew from RAI 1, one of the national channels. My response: to stand stunned for a moment and then say, "Turn off the camera. I need a minute."

Eventually, I gave them this response: "Everybody should have five books that they haven't seen in anybody else's house."

I thought that was that, until the next interviewer asked the same question. And the next. And the next. Finally, sitting between translator Nicola Nobili and journalist Stefano Salis at a public interview in the Giardino di casa Martinia, I was cornered by the (friendly) crowd:

"What five books should every home have?"

At first, I responded: "I recommend books to individuals. I can't imagine recommending one book to everybody.... if someone tried that on me, I'd run in the other direction."

"Thank you for explaining this," one member of the audience said while a translator whispered simultaneously in my ear. "Now, tell us: what are the five books?"


"Ok," I sighed. "I'll give you one. Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K Jerome. It's not edifying, and it's not morally or philosophically elevating. But it has the warmth of human presence -- and that is the highest praise I give to a book."

"Thank you," came a response. "You have four to go."

So I gave them one at a time, though they had to pry them out of me in successive questions: Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, Lee Meriwether's A Tramp Trip: How to See Europe on 50 Cents a Day, Religio Medici by Thomas Browne, and Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. They were not, I explained, five books for every home, nor were they five books for for all time. They were just five books on my mind that week.

I'm not sure that I can explain my resistance to issuing a personal canon, but I'm even more bewildered by the desire for one. To, the personal search for books is at least half the point: and it is utterly dependent on whatever odd cicrumstances, moods, and places happen to converge on any given day. Moreover, my stock of books constantly shifts every time I move house. I reevaluate what each book means to me, and whether I even want to keep it around.

But in retrospect, I suppose the question was really a simpler one, and had little to do with canons at all. At least, I hope so. At its root, it is simply a variation on "Tell us about yourself."

Strangely, for a memoirist, I really have no idea how to answer that question either.

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