Reading Books About: Home

In this semi-regular series, we’ll talk about our favorite books related to somewhat specific topics and themes. It’s like a cross between the New York Review of Books and a book club, minus any pretense or guilt.

Feb 9, 2012 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

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In this semi-regular series, we’ll talk about our favorite books related to somewhat specific topics and themes. It’s like a cross between the New York Review of Books and a book club, minus any pretense or guilt.

I read books about place and home and belonging an awful lot. I picked up on my preference for the theme a while ago when several friends asked me for book recommendations.* Most of my favorite picks related to specific places, usually cities or regions to which I have some sort of connection.

Here’s what I mean. When I read Jhumpa Lahiri books about Boston, I get a nostalgic itch to return to the (mostly) happy years I spent drinking coffee in Allston Rock City, eating in South End bistros, and browsing Cambridge bookstores.

A recent transplant to San Francisco, I’ve been picking up and tearing through anything by Joan Didion and Rebecca Solnit because I’m enamored with living on the Best Coast.

I have Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana poised on my to-read shelf because I grew up near Indianapolis.

You get the idea.

My favorite home-related books sort of up the ante. Because home is a broader concept than specific locations and is often as much tied to where we’re from as where we are now, a few choice non-fiction books about place stand out.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is perhaps my very favorite writer, and her 2006 memoir/manifesto The Place You Love Is Gone: Progress Hits Home is, to date, the most important book I have ever read. I really, truly mean that.

In it, Pierson traces her own history through three areas: Akron, Ohio; Hoboken, New Jersey, and upstate New York. You don’t need to have personal history with any of those cities, but it doesn’t hurt to have roots in the Midwest or along the Eastern Seaboard.

Holbrook writes about land ownership, water rights, literally vanishing places, and about how roads in the town where you grew up are like lines on the palm of your hand or veins running to your heart. Her metaphors are especially poignant if you’ve ever been away from your childhood home for long enough that former factories have become barren fields.

If you need a friend who knows the weird familiarity of an altered personal geography, you’ll be somehow simultaneously chilled and warmed that her descriptions so match your own experience.

It’s so hard to sum up this book, probably because I found that it so deeply resonated with my experiences, values, and hopes for our collective future. Read this Believer interview with Pierson if I somehow haven’t sold you on this would-be modern classic and then please go buy or borrow the book. I’d offer to lend you mine, but it's on loan to my acupuncturist right now, and predictably, there’s a wait list after her.

I thought it might be a decade or more before another book came along that rocked my world the way Holbrook’s has. But the past few weeks, Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House has kept me up at night reading with a familiar all-consuming fervor. A woman obsessed with finding the perfect physical home, the book has a Holbrook-esque undercurrent of longing and desire to find a safe, quiet space in a fast-paced world.

In her chronicle, Daum recounts relocations of her childhood, schlepping her crap back and forth across the country as a young adult, devouring real estate listings she likens to her own personal porn, and trying to make sense of her own parents’ dissatisfaction in the New Jersey suburbs when all they ever wanted was to live in New York City but felt unable and unworthy.

Vacillating between Nebraska farmhouses and urban studios, Daum attempts what some of us dream about: having it all. Even when she makes wildly eccentric decisions, spinning her wheels as she tries to resolve impossible choices, I couldn’t help but have compassion for her existential crises of location and self. How do we ever find where we belong? Why do some people never quite feel at home? Some of her most obvious troubles are never so much spelled out as referenced in her need to be constantly moving, looking for something better -- whatever that even means.

In trying to describe why I was so fiercely drawn to Daum’s narrative, I feel sort of maudlin and silly. Who the hell wants to read a memoir about harmless yet demonized roommates and indecisively moving between cramped sublets? It turns out that I do, and if you’ve ever dealt with either issue, it’s likely you will too. And this book is far more than a treatise about bad living situations and poor plumbing. (Again, another Believer piece, this time a recent personal essay by Daum, to help persuade you.)

Honorable mentions under the home theme are map books, but not of the road atlas variety. You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination and From Here To There: A Curious Collection From the Hand-Drawn Map Association are both fascinating collections of deeply personal documents and self-aware ephemera, the latter of particular interest since (shameless self-promotion alert) yours truly has several maps included. What can I say? I’m a joiner.

In that spirit, it’s only a true book club if you share, right? Tell your fellow home-book lovers what I missed and what you recommend.

*Between being an arts and culture writer/sometimes critic and carting a tremendous book collection repeatedly across time zones, I’ve become that go-to friend others ask for suggestions. Does everyone have a pal or two they lean on for media recs?