Millions of Cats

As a child I loved a book called One Million Cats.  A quick Google search reveals it was a picture book written and illustrated by Wanda Gág in 1928.  It won a Newberry Honor award in 1929, one of the few picture books to do so.  One Million Cats is the oldest American picture book in print.

But enough factoids.  This is a great book!  An elderly couple is lonely and the wife wants a cat to love.  So her husband goes out to find one, and comes upon a hillside covered in “hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats.”  The old man can’t decide among all the cats which is the most beautiful.   Each seems so lovely he’d like to keep them all. He goes back home with all the cats following him.  Just imagine the illustrations!

To five year old me, this was a thrilling story.   It still is.  A million cats!  Not even one too many.  In one of those kick-in-the-pants ironies that Life loves to serve up, my sister–who was allergic to cats when we were growing up, so that we had to keep our cats outdoors (which worked in South Carolina)– now has just slightly less than a million cats.  She has about six or eight at home (strays find their way to her door with amazing radar), runs a no-kill cat shelter, and feeds feral cats at a colony, while cat-crazy me married someone who is allergic to cats and can have none.

One Million Cats came to my mind as I was contemplating writing about how people, myself included, find and choose books to read.

I started out thinking it would be interesting to see where people get suggestions and recommendations for books.  Three of my favorite writer/reader friends told me where they find out about books, how they choose, and what books they’d recommend.

Peter S. responded:

“I like to find new books the same way I find new friends….random chaos. After twenty pages with a new author, or twenty minutes with a new acquaintance, I pretty much know whether I want to invest much time or effort into the relationship.

“I found Any Human Heart by William Boyd by poking around a little bookshop in Seaside, Florida. And that wonderful novel incited me to find more of his work. Which, in turn, recently led me to a perfect little memoir (Protobiography) consisting of four short stories about his early childhood in Africa and his schooldays at a boarding school in Scotland.

“Richard Ford and James Salter were recommended by my best friend, Bill, who is a voracious, discerning reader. I lucked into Island by Aldous Huxley in a throwaway bin at the local library. Not sure when or how I happened onto Saul Bellow (probably during my divorce), but I loved Herzog as he screamed along half crazy with anger and disillusionment. I picked up The Angle of Repose simply because I liked the title. I began imagining myself as Hemingway and Joseph Heller’s Yossarian ‘in context’ after I got drafted and eventually toddled off to Nam. I once spent two magical hours with Heller at a charity cocktail party in the Hamptons talking about Nam, my peculiar family and growing up in the Bronx. He took a liking to me and affectionately assigned me the honor of fetching him martinis for the balance of the evening. My only traditional sources would be an occasional scan of the Sunday Times Book Review and The Wall Street Journal’s gimmick of asking various authors to list their five favorites books in a specific category.

“But mostly I prefer rummaging around in unlikely places and especially enjoy the surprise of discovering things on my own…even if I have to kiss a lot of frogs along the way.”

Anne E. wrote me that she gets  “ideas from friends, the New York Times Book Review, NPR  which I listen to whenever I’m driving (which is always), New York Review of Books, I order books from Amazon and sometime take cues from them but not often.  Sometimes I will read a book by an author and then want to read something else written by the same author.  Sometimes I’m in the mood for something light and that often leads to fiction.  At other times I am hungry for biographies to learn more about people that we think we know but can always learn more about!  My last two books have been biographies: Elizabeth The Queen and Catherine the Great.  I loved them both.  Because I was going to Burma [in January] I read books about that country: The Piano Tuner, Burmese Days, Siam, and The Glass Palace.”

Rachel B. said she reads the NY Times Book Review every week.  “I love it.  I think one could be educated solely by reading that section.  As for whether I use it to guide book choices, I would have to say that it is only an indirect help.  It would reinforce a choice or discourage a choice made for other reasons.  Most of MY book choices are a result of word of mouth, NPR interviews, Miami Book Fair presentations, or book club recommendations (the #1 source).” Novels she’s read recently are The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenidis, Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht, Blue Angel, Francine Prose, and State of Wonder, Anne Patchett.

You see what’s happening here, don’t you.  More books have just followed you home, rubbing up against your ankles, purring like little engines, wanting to be read.

There are ONE MILLION BOOKS out there.  One million books vying for your attention, jumping into your lap, mewing choose me. The problem is not finding books to read but choosing among them.

I had mentioned in my previous post Christopher Shea’s piece on where people go to get reviews and book recommendations now that so many newspapers have cut back their book pages.  He introduced me to some great new places to read about books.  So even if you have all the recommendations you can bear, you still might enjoy browsing these sites to see what’s going on with them and to read some lively talk about books.

He cites The Los Angeles Review of Books (  http://lareviewofbooks.org/), a new website founded for the purpose of filling the gap of serious print book reviews; the free online quarterly Toronto Review of Books (http://www.torontoreviewofbooks.com/);  www.Goodreads.com —“like Facebook for book people, with 6.5 million members”; NPR, “which has decided to make books a prime focus of a revamped website” (http://www.npr.org/books/); The Wall Street Journal, which launched a book section when others were doing away with theirs; and the Barnes & Noble Review (http://bnreview.barnesandnoble.com/), “the book chain’s surprisingly highbrow online book review.”

I had never heard of Goodreads, and I was curious to see what it was like.  I only spent a little time on the site, all the while humming Phish’s “Come Waste Your Time with Me,” which is what I felt like I was doing.  You click books you’ve read from a list they provide and Goodreads will then make recommendations for what you might like to read in the future, much like Netflicks does with movies.  Scanning through their book titles in memoir and novels, I was daunted by all I haven’t read.  I did find a few titles I could click on.  In the novel category don’t say you’ve read Kite Runner, and in memoir don’t say An American Childhood …because Goodreads will go crazy selecting books that are “like” those and only those.  At least that was my experience…  I’d be interested if any of you 6.5 million Goodreads members out there actually use Goodreads. And if so, what do you think of it?

In One Million Cats the wife gets it immediately that they can’t keep a million or so cats.

Choose me, no me no Me, no me-ow...

She suggests the cats decide among themselves which one gets to stay, asking “Which one of you is the prettiest?”  An enormous catfight ensues, and when the frightened couple venture out of their house, all the cats are gone.  They’ve destroyed each other in their jealousy frenzy.

But one skinny cat is hiding in tall grass.  It survived because it didn’t consider itself pretty, so the other cats didn’t bother with it.  The couple takes it in and it becomes beautiful with their care, exactly the cat they wanted.

So it is with books.  You have a hard time deciding among them all.  So many seem enticing.  You’d like to read them all.  But sometimes one book rises mysteriously from the grass, and it is exactly the book you wanted.

I plan to give more thought to how and why I choose a particular book out of the one million books that want to be my pet.  What makes me pick up this one as opposed to that?  A Maine Coon vs. a brindled tabby…  A memoir about becoming a widow vs. a super, sad, true love story…

I will report back in a later post.

In the meantime, feel free to tell me how YOU choose books (or cats).