The poems I know well, and love best, I do not need to read. I can catch a couple of lines of a page or from memory, and the pleasure of the whole poem is there.
Why had I led the life I had led, done so little, achieved so little? When my life is of such significance to me, how is it I could not claim any significance for it in the eyes of a disinterested observer?...Who is to say that, whatever it might have been, that alternative life would not also have left me, as I sat in the hospice parking lot, with a sense of having been in the wrong room all my life, the room where nothing was happening?
Sometimes I discover a book that makes me realize I probably spend far too much time wanting to read what is new. Partly this is a function of my job—I need to understand what is popular so I can either help patrons find it or help them find something similar while they wait for something uber-popular. (For example, if you are on your library’s very-long waiting list for Where the Crawdads Sing, I might recommend The Cove by Ron Rash—or anything else by him!—Oral History by Lee Smith, Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, Where All the Light Tends to Go by David Joy (even though I resent the title), or A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash.) Part of it is that new books are the ones that are (usually) most discussed on social media in whatever form, so they are the ones that draw my attention. (Until, of course, something else new comes out and then I want to read that one. And on and on.)
This means I tend to read by what comes up on the hold shelf for me, despite the different ways I have tried to break out of this pattern. There are just so many books I want to read! And it also means I’ve lost the pleasure of just wandering down the library shelves in search of something new to read. (It’s strange: when you work in a place you’ve always loved, your relationship with it changes. I can’t, for example, smell the library anymore, because I’m here too often.) So I can’t quite remember how I came to the book Meet Me at the Museum—was it on a read-alike list? a random bookstagram post? I’m not sure!—which was published 18 months ago. (Which still might mean “new” but definitely not “brand new.”)
But I am so glad I found it, as it’s one of my favorite books I’ve ever read.
It tells the story of Tina Hopegood, who lives on a farm with her husband and adult children in England, and Professor Anders Larsen, who works at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark. Tina writes the museum about the Tollund Man, a bog person who is on exhibit there, and Anders writes back. A friendship is formed. And on that simple premise I found a book full of characters with different pieces of my identity.
I loved this book so much.
Not just for the story—because honestly, at one point I said out loud (I was reading in the bathtub) if this turns out like The Bridges of Madison County I’m going to be so mad. I liked the story for the gentle way it develops, and for the ways that Tina and Anders influence each other, how they each change through their friendship.
But what I adored was their exchange of ideas. You have to read it to get the whole picture, but one of the ideas that Tina comes back to over and over is how her life might’ve been different if she had made different choices, and how, as a woman with adult children, she might shape the last part of her adult years. The way she finds the courage to change her life. The ways that Anders changes, too, from doubting himself in certain ways to understanding his value.
I’m not sure if I read this in my twenties if I’d love it. But reading it now, in my 40s, with so many years of reading, thinking, learning, and wondering behind me, I can appreciate its richness.
Plus, bog people are fascinating to me, and archaeology, and history. And museums. And Seamus Heaney, who wrote a poem about the Tollund Man.
And it was only after I finished it that I learned its author, Anne Youngson, is older than me, and this is her first novel. (It gives me hope!)
However I came to find it, I am glad for the bookish serendipity that brought this into my hands.