Stuck in holiday traffic last month, I relied on Roger Angell to keep me calm. Angell, who’s 95, was on the radio to discuss “This Old Man,” his new collection of writings that mostly draws on pieces published during his decades at The New Yorker.
A teen caller asked Angell if he had any advice for young people like her. Enjoy life, he told her, and read as much you can.
Maybe it’s not a complete philosophy, but for a thumbnail homily that had to be squeezed into a media interview, I thought it was pretty good.
A copy of “This Old Man” was under my tree Christmas morning, along with a stack of new books for the quiet days between Christmas and New Year’s when lucky souls can read, nap and eat their way through the yuletide lull.
As the tide of the celebration receded, I read near the tree, finding the lights on the branches just about right for scanning a page. The bulbs were bright but not glaring, an illumination so sublime that I grieved a little when we took the tree down.
Moderation is what I look for in a reading light, and in the reading itself. I like writers who are sane and subtle and don’t shout, an antidote of sorts to the news cycle.
Angell is such an author, as I learned while dipping into his book — an assortment of essays, reviews and letters he calls a “dog’s breakfast” because it resembles the odd smatterings of leftovers that mutts once ate from the household kitchen. There are pieces on air travel and Jackie Robinson, the joys of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, favorite pets, losing a spouse, fighting a war. A dog’s breakfast it is, varied but nourishing.
Another yuletide arrival was “The Story of Land and Sea,” New Orleans novelist Katy Simpson Smith’s period story, set in the waning days of the Revolutionary War, about young Tabitha and her widowed father, a land-bound sailor who feels he must return to sea to save Tab’s life. Here’s how Smith, a quietly observant prose stylist, begins her tale: “On days in August when sea storms bite into the North Carolina coast, he drags a tick mattress into the hall and tells his daughter stories, true and false, about her mother. The wooden shutters clatter, and Tabitha folds blankets around them to build a softness for the storm.” Smith’s gift for narrative made me hopeful for her follow-up novel, “Free Men,” due out next month.
It’s in the nature of things that most of the books I got for Christmas last month remain unread. But as Angell mentions at one point in “This Old Man,” just the thought of a book waiting somewhere for you can be enough:
“It’s a kick for me to think of those arrayed words and sentences and pages in the dark … and our old house groaning and creaking in the night, and our library waiting there for us to come back again …”
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.