Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The joys of reading a good book

I have been reading "City of Thieves" by David Benioff. It's the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who gets arrested in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in 1942, when the city is under siege. Instead of being executed, he is paired up with a young man who has been arrested for desertion from the Russian army. The two of them must find a dozen eggs for the general's daughter's wedding cake. Based on those few sentences, the premise seems pretty weak, but it actually works.

The story is told as if this was Benioff's grandfather's experience. The first few chapters were a little awkward for me to get through because the of the voice used in telling the story, but after I was able to pick up that rhythm, the story flowed very well. It's more like a coming-of-age story than a war novel. I listened to an interview with Benioff, and he actually considered a number of other cities that had been under siege at various times in the past before picking Leningrad.

The novel has a number of very good lines, but the following struck a chord with me, although, to tell the truth, I feel like I've heard it before. Lev, the seventeen-year-old, and Koyla, the deserter are walking through Leningrad at night (for which they needed a special pass) and they hear someone playing the piano. Lev comments "Music was an important part of my childhood, on the radio and in the concert halls. My parents were fanatic in their passion; we were a family with no talent for playing but great pride in our listening."

I think this resonated with me for two reasons. First, most people I know have something they really enjoy, but that they could never actually do well. My generally mild-mannered husband will yell at the television when his team misses a pass or in any other way plays poorly. I always thought this was funny behavior. I mean, they can't hear him, so what's the point of yelling? And if he could be playing better than the professional athletes, wouldn't the teams have hired him? Of course, my husband knows he can't play that well. He just gets really frustrated when the professionals make mistakes.

This really isn't any different than my emotions about reading: I cry when a beloved character dies; I worry over what will happen next, even if I've read the book before (seriously, I've read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood prince at least three times, and every time Malfoy immobilizes Harry and then breaks his nose on the train, I worry that this time, Tonks won't find Harry).

My second attachment to this line has to do with my own limitations. I would love to be a writer. I have a number of ideas rolling around in my head, but when I start to jot them down on paper, they all seem a bit trite. I realize I should probably just keep going and see if I get better with practice, or with some editing help from my friends, but I feel rather like I already know I'll never be as good at this as a number of my favorite authors. This thought isn't depressing, as much as it makes me wonder if I should bother trying at all, or if that time would be better spent reading works and authors I love.

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