books

Although obituaries aren’t meant to bring cheer, I couldn’t help smiling earlier this year when I read a line from the death notice for my friend Joël Levy, a longtime copy editor who passed away Feb. 27. Joël was remembered in her obit as someone who “was never known to read less than five books at a time.”

That brought me back to my early newsroom days, when I often saw Joël heading for the breakroom, a hardback tucked beneath her arm. What Joël read in all those years of our time together, I couldn’t quite say. Newsrooms are open places, but as a nod toward privacy, I tried not to inquire too much about my colleagues’ book choices. Even so, in an office not known for secrets, reading habits were subject to inspection.

One editor, now long retired, kept a vintage copy of “Meditations,” by the ancient Roman Marcus Aurelius, under his desk as he pruned newspaper copy each day. That book is about many things, but its “this-too-shall-pass” message, which cautions against getting worked up over the trials of the moment, seemed a good thing for a journalist to keep in mind as he navigated the fleeting outrages of the news cycle.

As a young reporter who equated bleakness with sophistication, I spent one autumn reading the poetry of Thomas Hardy, who liked reflections on mortality and ill-fated romance. Joël, spotting me with the old copy of Hardy’s verse I’d fished from a secondhand bookshop, did a gentle intervention. Hardy was OK in small doses, she suggested, but he shouldn’t be indulged too heavily by a young man with his life ahead of him.

Joël had faced her share of personal challenges over the years, I gathered, and what she seemed to tell me, without quite saying so, is that sadness can become crippling if you keep too much company with it. I’ve remembered that advice over the years as I pull Hardy from the shelf, inevitably in autumn, for no more than an hour or so before returning him to the bookcase.

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Autumn comes to mind this month as Louisiana residents try to put a painful summer in the rearview mirror. In a season of stock-taking, I've discovered that my summer reading plans didn’t quite work out as hoped.

I finished few books over the vacation season — mostly because, like Joël, I find it hard to stick to one title.

“Where I Come From,” Rick Bragg’s collection of magazine columns, is on my nightstand, along with “The Stubborn Light of Things,” an assortment of Melissa Harrison’s nature writings. I’m working through “My Place at the Table,” Alexander Lobrano’s memoir of his eating life in Paris, and “Backrooms and Bayous,” Bob Mann’s stories from his days in Louisiana politics.

That’s only four books I’m juggling, which Joël would regard as moderation. How I’d love to tell her that in person.


Email Danny Heitman at danny@dannyheitman.com.