“What, after all, is born in the dead month of January besides a new calendar?”
Truly a feast for lovers of the written word and all its attendant intimacies, Nissey’s cleverly constructed book is a compilation of facts, trivia, fictional tidbits and arcane details that appeal to readers. There are brief accounts of the lives of great authors for each day of the year (Virginia Woolf’s margin-scribbled notes, Charles M. Schulz celebrating the contract for his comic strip, Nora Zeale Hurston’s firing from a job for being “too well educated”); fictional events gleaned from favorite books (King’s protagonist Carrie’s blood-soaked prom); the days on which famous authors were born and died; fabulous lists of recommended reading after each month; bits of reviews gleaned from history; and clever black-and-white illustrations throughout by artist Joanna Neborsky.
An eight-time champion of Jeopardy!, the author has put heart and soul into the accumulation of information that fills this tome with priceless pieces of truth and fiction, from the factual aspects of writer’s lives to the invented lives of their stories, highlighting the many instances when authors have used particulars of their own histories in those of their characters. This precise attention to detail and nuance gives this book its unique blend, a melding of fact and fiction that enhances the experiences as the writer’s worlds are expanded by the inclusion of their creations, whether fictional fancies or a memoirist’s recollections.
In his preface, Nissey explains how his work was created and the many and varied sources from which he has drawn material. Even more compelling is considering how the book might be read: start to finish, opened at random, or favorite authors selected from the index. Like a Pandora’s box, Nissey has salted the pages with detours, from the sly insertion of fictional characters and their exploits to the real-time experiences that shape an author’s interests, not to mention the recommended reading lists that accompany each month. April, for example, offers T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), composed after Lincoln’s murder, “a livelier and more joyful vision of death you’re not likely to find.” August brings William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932), inspired by those “few days somewhere around the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall” and “a luminous quality to the light.”
Considering that Jeopardy! is a game based on arcane bits of information, Nissey has clearly parlayed his ability to leap from one topic to another in a most arresting manner. A Reader's Book of Days is cohesive in its structure and execution, but the purposeful distractions along the way give this work its definitive flavor: the odd aside of a character in the midst of crisis; an author’s tragedy giving birth to great literature; historical events shaping the direction of a writer’s work; the sly insertion of another novel to investigate; historical details that range through centuries of writers driven to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), churning out what they cannot keep inside. Humanizing the experience, Nissey makes his chosen authors all the more human and relatable to the reader, both through relating personal details and the experiences of their characters. That heady stew of varied ingredients contains all the flavors of humanity. It is an impressive undertaking, one to be shared with others who love the written word and its vast bounty to feed a hungry mind.