The Reader’s Regress—Loving Books and Wine in a Finite World

There was a time when I would have been thrilled by a new wine megastore within jogging distance from my house (though as a rule I avoid jogging with wine bottles). Instead, I cast a wary eye as I drive by, hoping my favorite wine shop can stay in business. Yet, I confess I was intrigued. I do drive by pretty much any time I drive anywhere, so I resolved to satisfy my curiosity with just one visit. What endless surprises could lie inside such a large store? I cleverly chose my reconnaissance time as 5:30 on a Friday during football season; hurried patrons crossed the parking lot, some careening with filled shopping carts. Fortunately, immediately inside on the left extended the Bordeaux aisle, with signage conveniently indicating sections for Left and Right Bank. With a longing eye on the Margaux, I sighed and bent to grab a bottle I could afford. But if it was to be only one visit, shouldn’t I choose another bottle?

Turning back to the center aisle, I was hit with a dizzying wave of overwhelm. Aisles and aisles of wines I don’t know, lacking my knowledgeable wine guys politely waiting at the ready. Resigned to leave, I paused as I noticed the “Other Reds” sign from the corner of my eye. If any store is bountiful enough to have a Petit Verdot in stock, this should be the place. As I looked, an employee passed by, offering to help. He appeared to be a manager: harried, late middle-aged and wearing a tie. Surely he was the closest thing to a “wine guy”. He pulled out a small inventory machine holstered at the hip. I had to help him with the spelling – Verdot begins with V-e-r…

My reason for wanting my local wine store to stay in business is quite selfish: they know the wines. Granted, their Bordeaux selection is smaller, but they can quickly point out the Left Bank wines because they know the labels. A wine guy can direct me to a more nuanced Napa Cabernet that will help me develop my palate. He can also with great sincerity select a red that I will drink out of a red solo cup at a giant family Thanksgiving Dinner. They can know these things because they know something the limitless store does not know. They know finitude. And so it is with the life of a reader.

The true amateur loves by remaining both feet firmly planted in a bounded land. I joke that I married my husband for his library. I have only read a fraction of the books in our home, and the ones I have read I wish to re-read, and the ones that I have re-read I still need to read again. There is a perpetual, infinite regression; the more that I have read, the more that I have yet to read. If I stop to think, I will be paralyzed and instead resort to something transitory on the cell phone in my pocket.

My reading is ordered from my limitations. Sometimes it is patterned by a season. When the Beaujolais Noveau hits the endcap displays, I know that it is time for murder mysteries again. On a holiday afternoon, I can tuck into a chair under a blanket and read an Agatha Christie novel in a sitting, ignoring the football game in the background. When it turns colder, I reach for a rich and peppery red blend and pick up where I left off the winter before with Le Carre’s spy novels. When the heat turns unbearable, it is the season for a crisp Sauvignon Blanc and a summer re-read of Harry Potter.

Most of the year, when the time is ordinary, I waver, remembering all yet to read and those read and forgotten. How do you choose when you love all that is good? I love all good books and all good wine, except Science Fiction, Malbec, and Merlot. The temperamental Pinot Noir and moody Russian novelists are my special favorites, but I am not always up for the investment. Upon consideration, there are hazy, winnowing categories anchoring my choice. I do not consult a master list of “every book I want to read before I die”. There are well-recommended books (often from the Close Reads Podcast) and a few classics that I have been meaning to read that have sifted to the top of the list. Usually, I explore one author or category like I explore a varietal; this year it is Catholic novelists (again) and Cotes-de-Rhone. I return, comparing, contrasting, and watching as they weave in and out of one another.

My mind is not a holstered inventory machine; my memory is a bit pathetic. I struggle to remember plot lines and can rarely quote passages. Most of what remains are phrases or moments or impressions, the feeling of who I was when I read the books and peered into another world altogether. What I gather is skill. Cellar temperature is colder than my Florida kitchen. Notice sacramental imagery. The best authors write the whole book in the first paragraph. When all is said and done, I will know little while having learned much.

“How has business been?” I ask the cashier at the wine shop. “A little slower,” he replies. “It is to be expected.” It has only been two weeks since the new store’s opening less than a mile away. If there is anything this town loves, it is to flock to the newest thing. After a pause, he adds, “We are doing some things…like selling wine that is actually good.” His wry smile causes me to laugh out loud. Except for a very small shelf generously labeled “Table Wine”, it is all good, no matter the price point. When you do not stock everything, you can stock what is good.

The old recliner where I rocked three babies is in our home library. Dirty and dilapidated, we have not been able to let it go; one spring is now missing from its recent exploits as a rocket ship. When I rest there, at eye level sits the shelf of southern writers; it is partially broken, and Walker Percy’s novels remain precariously under threat of tumbling to the ground. I know that I will never come close to reading them all. But I have read some, and there is a lifetime burning in every book.

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