I have a wonderful bedside table. It came from an old ship, and has to be at least one hundred and fifty years old, a gnarled, iron-legged mahogany slab that would say “aaargh” if it talked. The French doors in my bedroom lead out onto a small deck and a garden of roses, honeysuckle, wisteria, lilac, poppies, a Giverny of color. In spring and summer the fragrance changes every night, indescribable, dizzying.
That said, though I keep my bedside table stocked with books, I almost never read in bed, and carry my books back and forth comically, like a cat who cannot find the right place for her sweet mouse. I drag a book into the living room and read in the commotion of the four eleven- and twelve-year-olds (only one of whom is mine totally, though all are mine partially by right of neighborhood domain) trying to create a website for their band, Fang. Or scrunch into the window seat with the calico who doesn’t want me there, and who will nip my toes.
Anyhow. More on my disgraceful habits later, my slap in the face to all the great traditions of bedside tables. Here’s what’s currently blessed by the wood of mine:
Shakespeare’s collected works. Shakespeare is my beginning and end, and I still use the battered set I bought in college. It is always there. Shakespeare inhabited me when I was young, a high school dropout, and someone who could not in any academic sense read him. Every few years I reread all of the plays but I dip into the book constantly; recently I reread Julius Caesar and looked up, out of curiosity, Anthony’s speech in the play versus the account of it in Plutarch, Shakespeare’s source. (Plutarch presented Anthony as no great speaker, simply a man who could rouse a crowd with tales of money and gore.)
Beowulf, the Seamus Heaney translation. I am on my second read, and trying to make my way through as much as I can of the Anglo-Saxon, which I have never studied. It’s an astonishing language, alternately grim, profound, gorgeous, that presents the world in a way that renders it inescapably present: those noun compounds: world-candle for the sun, whale-road and swan-road for the sea (that they could have taken those creatures so for granted!). I wonder how we would treat our world if we still saw it that way.
The End of the Game by Julio Cortazar. I brought this home because I had not read it in thirty years and wanted to reread a book that made me smitten long ago with language. It is a remarkable collection of short stories — strange, human, surprising — and I love it as much now as when I came across it in college.
Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard. I have read essays from this collection but I have not read it in its entirety, so I plan to this summer. I love Dillard. When I went to graduate school classes on literary nonfiction were rare, and my graduate program had none. Reading Dillard to me is like taking a class in how to write nonfiction, in the best sense.
“Sunrise Insomnia Service,” a poem by my husband, Bruce Beasley, which he gave me to read in draft form. It’s brilliant. He’s brilliant. And I get to live with him. Very cool.
Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, by a very talented young writer named Julie Wade, whom I once had the privilege of teaching. The book has been accepted by Colgate University Press — just a week ago — so I got an early copy of the manuscript. It’s a lyric memoir about love, family, coming out — things she manages with the true Poundian instinct for making it new. It’s as tough as it is beautiful.
So what’s the deal with the dream of a bedside table? The truth is, though I mean to read in bed and do occasionally, when I make it to bed at the end of the day I generally watch TV — something on DVD, like Battlestar Galactica, then the Daily Show. Perhaps with the riot of brilliance out the doors, the fragrance pouring in through the window, books would be too much, a spin too many on the wheel.
Susanne Antonetta is the author of two nonfiction books, A Mind Apart and Body Toxic, and four books of poetry. She wrote “Language Garden” for the March/April 2005 issue, one of several contributions to Orion.