Michael Chabon keeps popping up in my feeds. First it was random mentions on Twitter (I didn’t pay much attention to those). Then it was the much-lauded essay about attending Paris Fashion Week with his son, Abe. I eventually read and loved the piece, but didn’t do any further research. Today it was a Buzzfeed piece by Doree Shafrir. I read it in fascination, slowly falling in love with this funny, thoughtful, geeky author.
Each time I saw his name, a memory niggled. I can very clearly see a thick, brightly-colored book on the shelf in my local library. My memory thinks that it is called Summerland. My memory also thinks that Michael Chabon wrote it. But each time that I read about him, I am less sure. There’s no mention of this book in the Twitter posts, the essay, the profile. The more I know—about his literary connections, about his current work—the less he seems like a man who would have written the middle grade book, which, if my memory serves me correctly, was about baseball. I start to wonder if I’m remembering the wrong author’s name. At one point, I even think I might be confusing the title with Ally Condie’s haunting middle-grade, Summerlost.
Finally, I resort to Wikipedia to confirm my very specific but now doubtful memory. The world’s free encyclopedia confirms that I’m right: Michael Chabon is the author of Summerland. It’s about a magical quest and baseball plays a big role.
I click through the references to see what reviewers of the time thought about Summerland. They’re not complimentary.
And these discoveries, while they reassure me that my memory for books is exactly as good as I expect it to be, trouble me. Figuring out why requires a bit of a journey.
As a child, I was obsessed with my local library. I’m reluctant to describe trips to the library as a religious experience, but that’s a good metaphor, minus the actual deity and salvation concepts. I developed rituals around the occasion—carrying my books a certain way, following the exact same path through the stacks. Over the years, certain books became important touchstones. I liked knowing the order, recognizing the colors and titles and authors. I had the children’s section of my library practically memorized. Summerland was on the left, against the wall, just a few sections in, prominent in the middle of the shelf, around eye height, depending on your height.
It was colorful and large (500 pages), so it was an attractive book. While you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, covers matter a lot when you’re surveying the stacks for something new to read. I passed it a lot of times before I actually read it. When I did, it didn’t make a strong impression. I passed it lots of times after. Titles and authors are important to me. They always go together. Have you ever read about someone reciting a list to handle anxiety, resist torture, or distract from arousal? My list would be books and authors. I mentally hoard them. Summerland and Michael Chabon stick for many reasons, but partly because I don’t know how to pronounce “Chabon.” I still don’t know, although I’m sure I could look it up.
So the title and cover and author stick, but I don’t give them very much thought. They are just a comfortable part of my collection.
I go to college and major in English. I study lots of literature. I like literature and I like studying it, but I’m not very good at theory. I dislike its general disconnect from real life. And I like genre fiction a lot too. It doesn’t have much of a place in my college curriculum. So I am an English major who feels disconnected from the study of literature, although I do just fine in my classes.
After college, I became very involved in the bookish world on the Internet. I follow many authors and book bloggers and booktubers and bookstagrammers. I write book reviews and record book review videos and Tweet about books and go to author events and signings. I love this world. But I’m also troubled by it, sometimes in ways I can easily articulate, but often in ways that I can’t.
When I think about Michael Chabon, those three distinct segments of my reading life collide. As a child in the Deep South, I knew nothing more about Michael Chabon than the name of his least successful book. But Summerland and Michael Chabon belonged to a tiny girl who was deeply proud of her little library and all the books she had read.
Authors who have profiles written, who publish viral essays, whose names are popular in California, those authors belong to the literature major, to a girl who pretends that strings of 5-syllable words means something to her.
When I discovered the full story of Michael Chabon, he no longer belonged to the little girl who knew exactly where his book was on the shelf of her local library. He belonged to the rest of the world, to the essays and literary criticism and fancy author communities. And the little girl left inside my memories hates that a little bit.
And this is what I do not like about the book community, the thing that I have not been able to articulate. In the web of Twitter and blogs and Instagram and Youtube and Goodreads and and and, I have lost the ability to not know. Now I only read books I have heard of. Now I know the entire backstory of a book or author. Now I read the criticisms that tell me that a book I liked is no good. Now I have lost the feeling that that book belongs to me.
Lots of people like finding their tribe, finding the other people who like the thing that they like. And while I like finding people who like books, I’m not actually sure I like finding people who like the books that I like. When I know about the huge life a book has beyond the shelf, I have trouble making it mine, feeling like that story belongs to me.
I miss that feeling.
So Michael Chabon, if you’re reading this: once upon a time, a girl who liked reading very much only knew you by Summerland. It might not have been her favorite book, but it was one that brought her joy, that fit happily into the books that surrounded her as she grew up. She respected you for this one book, even if the critics didn’t. She did not know that you had a Pulitzer Prize or that one of your books was made into a movie or that you had written anything else. But she liked you anyway.