The Book that Matters Most
I was skeptical about Ann Hood’s novel The Book That Matters Most because I don’t usually like books about people who love books; I find most of them overly precious and irritatingly contrived. And, like many people who love books, I get a little weary of proclaiming and defending my list of favorites, by any other name (most important, most influential, by genre, by century, even the book one would “be” in a Fahrenheit 451 world). But Hood disarms most of my objections, as one of her characters talks about “the idea of the book that matters most” and why it’s “impossible to pick such a book. When you read a book, and who you are when you read it, makes it matter or not. Like if you’re unhappy and you read, I don’t know, On the Road or The Three Musketeers and that book changes how you feel or how you think, then it matters the most. At that time.”
This novel is about how a fictional book matters most to its main character, Ava. We find out that Ava is alone because her children are grown, her husband left her for another woman, her sister died when she was young, after which her mother disappeared, and her father has dementia. Ava “missed the rituals of her young family” and has decided to join a book group because she is “desperate for company, desperate for conversation….Not just for company, but for something more, a deeper connection to people.” I think many of us who have taken to the internet to find like-minded readers can identify with that.
Hood indulges herself with the book group discussions, having each member choose a classic so she can give her own readers some background and talk about (hard to avoid using Jo Walton’s phrase here) “what makes this book so great.” She includes Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Catcher in the Rye, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Slaughterhouse-Five. On her website, she talks about how she selected those titles, and gives a few of the others people mentioned when she asked them what book “matters most.”
My favorite line (everybody’s favorite line) from Catcher in the Rye is used as an epigraph to the chapter in which it is discussed: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Although she doesn’t explicitly offer her friendship to her own readers, in the age of twitter you can at least tweet at Ann Hood.
The novel is put together in an interesting way. It’s Ava’s story, but we get interested in the story of her daughter, and then her sister and her mother and her aunt. All of the stories come together in the end, and it’s not irritatingly contrived but feels pretty much inevitable.
What I most want to say to the author of The Book That Matters Most is thank you for the happy ending. Because as much as I love the grand gestures of tragedy, what makes this book matter to me is the reassurance that even though individual lives leave a mark, most people can eventually get over a loss, even the kind of loss that seems at the time like the end of the world…and for the reminder that often what helps people through is a book.