He had me at “Ann Patchett.”
I agreed to go on the date solely because he mentioned my favorite Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle author. I loved Patchett’s riotous, gin-laced opening to Commonwealth. I even had the opportunity to meet her in 2017, when I was a designer at the Daily. It was a nervous and sweaty affair (meeting my literary idol — though the date was, too). But I was so proud.
In 2018, I got assigned the literary arts beat at the Daily. It was my dream job, reporting on books and stealing secrets from storytellers. The three months flew by in a reading frenzy. I interviewed CLSC authors from Victor LaValle to Kao Kalia Yang, gaining insight into the writing life and the business of books. I learned what questions to ask — and what questions not to. I made mistakes. I translated an interview from Russian. I decided I wanted to spend my retirement in an RV in the desert à la Nomadland. Thanks to Prairie Fires, I became a quasi-expert on the myth of the American Dream. From Signal Flame, I began to appreciate the beauty in sorrow and the necessity of struggle. Basically, I grew up. I got smarter.
In 2013, I graduated from the CLSC Young Readers Program. For a while, the picture of me taken with my certificate beamed from its perch in the CLSC Veranda. I knew what needed to happen next as I looked at the “adult books” with their thick spines. It could take years, but, one day, I would graduate from the CLSC.
My first foray into this exciting wonderland of mature printed content and sophisticated stories was a CLSC presentation in 2014. Chang-Rae Lee spoke about the inspiration for his sci-fi novel, On Such a Full Sea. I was bewitched. I wanted to read. I wanted to write. I wanted to be part of this club.
This is the part of the story during which I developed a love, nay, addiction, to book signings. As I opened my copy of Lee’s novel to be penned, he looked surprised to see my young (and absolutely smitten) face. I told him I was “only” a Young Reader, but his book marked the start of my CLSC journey. He was impressed, kindly saying it was quite the undertaking.
I was hooked. I perfected my strategy for being the first person in line at book signings. (It’s fairly rudimentary. The second the Q-and-A is over: run.)
On the front porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall, Amor Towles sketched a martini (dirty) beside his signature. Victoria Lomasko teased me for my limited knowledge of Russia, drawing a caricature of a papal-like Putin with a speech bubble reading something undoubtedly snarky in Russian calligraphy I don’t pretend to understand. Andrew Krivák spoke such encouraging words about my pursuing writing that I cried while biking back to the Daily. And one time Sandra Day O’Connor reprimanded me.
Reading CLSC selections has never been a solo act. My dad offers anyone willing to listen a personalized list of book recommendations from the year’s selections. My parents recently finished organizing our CLSC “library,” complete with color-coordinated “library cards” found in the back of each book and a handy little stamp to document the date and the reader.
I tried to keep this essay strictly about books. But I found it impossible to talk about my enduring love for words and CLSC graduation without mentioning my life right now.
I realized this is rather fitting, for we never read out of context. We love a book because it reveals something about ourselves or illuminates an aspect of humanity we hadn’t seen before or sweeps us away from our worldly surroundings. Whatever the reason, reading is inherently connected to our realities.
This will be my second graduation this summer. I graduated from Georgetown University in May, with tear-stained, puffy eyes. Being an English major there was nearly as good as being the literary arts reporter for the Daily. I did not want to leave.
I, like so many of us, am living in a time of uncertainty. My summer has been punctuated by job applications, travel, family emergencies and phone calls from friends about their new lives, new homes, new relationships. I’m not sure where I’m going after CLSC graduation or what life will bring. But that’s true for everyone. And isn’t life’s uncertainty, when whittled down, the plot of every book?
My parents were disappointed they did not get the radiant photo of their daughter in cap and gown holding a diploma. And so, the CLSC saves me once again. You will find me, on Recognition Day, dressed in white with both of my parents graduating alongside me. This time, I will be smiling. The future seems less uncertain when I think about the things I know for sure. The years ahead will bring more words, more awkward and inspirational book signings, more stamps in library cards and more discussions of literary idols on first dates.