A classic book that comes with a ‘guarantee’

Sometimes, the right book is just waiting for you to find it.

Once, while exploring a dark corner of my hometown library, I looked up to see a dull, greyish, library-bound copy of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel “The Moviegoer.” I don’t know what it was about this dusty tome that grabbed my younger self – especially since its scuffed spine offered no information other than the title and author’s name. I worry that it was as simple as thinking, “Hey, I go to the movies, too!” but I couldn’t really tell you. (I didn’t know it was a National Book Award winner, that’s for sure.)

Still, Percy’s novel about a disaffected Korean War veteran in New Orleans called to me and I answered. And I remember feeling like it was the book I’d needed to read right then.

More recently, I was here at my desk, thinking about things I needed to do and books I needed to read for work and I let my gaze drift upward into the overflowing bookshelves above.

A slim novel caught my attention: J.L. Carr’s “A Month in the Country,” a book I’d read and enjoyed…right? Pulling it down, I realized that while I’d convinced myself I’d read it at some point, it was clear that I hadn’t.

Talk about hiding in plain sight. Not only had its spine been in front of me for months, but my NYRB edition of the 1980 novel had also been drifting around my shelves since I’d bought it at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company and I’d rudely been ignoring it.

I shouldn’t have. Backlisted hosts Andy Miller and John Mitchinson devoted the first episode of their wonderful books podcast to “A Month in the Country.” Prior to the inaugural episode, however, neither had read the book (though Mitchinson slightly eased my conscience when he admitted, “I’d pretended to.”)

When I interviewed them last year for the podcast’s 200th episode, Miller brought up the novel during our wide-ranging conversation. I’d not had room to include that part of the discussion in my original piece – and it had almost slipped my mind that we’d talked about it. But after reading the book, I went back through the transcript and found what Miller had told me about it.

“When we met to have the first discussions about the books we might cover, we agreed that ‘A Month in the Country’ by J.L. Carr was sort of perfect – I have literally never met in real life, or online life, anyone who doesn’t love that novel,” said Miller. “In a sense, we began with the perfect one, and we’ve been trying to work our way back ever since.”

Miller then directed his comments directly to you, the readers.

“So if anyone reading this hasn’t read ‘A Month in the Country’ by J.L. Carr, we guarantee – guarantee! – that that novel, which will take you 2-3 hours to read, will stay with you forever,” said Miller. “It’s the absolute epitome of a book that everybody loves while simultaneously thinking they are the only person who knows about it. “

Benjamin Myers, the author of “The Gallows Pole” and “The Perfect Golden Circle,” also mentioned it to me when we spoke in 2022: “It’s set in the aftermath of the First World War. It’s really short, poignant, simple – it’s a novella, really – about one man who renovates a church in a little village in England. It’s beautiful. It’s sort of very melancholic. It was made into a film in the ‘80s, starring Colin Firth. I always mention that book because I think it’s not widely read.”

So a novel that not everyone has read, but everyone who has loves it? Sounds about right. I spent a lovely few hours – spread out over a couple of days to make it last – reading this short novel about a World War I veteran who comes to a village in the north of England to restore a painting. (I know this description does not do it justice.)

What do I love about the book? As much as I could point to its melancholy or humor or longing, it’s not that any one part outshines the rest – it’s that’s all of its elements seem so perfectly balanced.

If you’ve read it, you know what I mean. And if you haven’t, well, you have something to look forward to.

I hope the right book finds you, too.