Everydayness–that ontology of the commonplace that dominates our lives, polices our world from the shadows. Its functionaries and sheriffs abound, representatives from the gray realm of routine—the job, the marriage and the kids, the lateness of the showery afternoon, commuting in heavy traffic as drive-time advertises the latest fashions, celebrity news, tips for dieting and how to gain a foothold in a grand new career, not to mention last night’s scores, reaching out and touching our shoulders if we dare venture off. The Everyday informs us that the latest franchised blockbuster cleared twenty million on its opening weekend. There are constables here and there as well, the “They” who push us with a feathery touch to stay in line, wash our hands, finish the task, have a dream, gossip a bit, smile and say please. Our top-heavy brain, product of four million years of evolution, is pleased by hierarchy, intuition, distraction, shortcuts, backbiting and boot licking; the brain is goaded into seeking both justice and revenge, compassion and exclusion, and is forever looking at ways to pass on its genes. Into this intrudes the reading life, seeking relief against all the odds.

Everydayness and evolution are the givens against which the reading life struggles, the primal soup in which it gestates. No wonder our souls are often frozen, given the hurly burly, the schedule, the office, the marriage; maybe it’s true a special book could be a blow to the head as Kafka suggests. No wonder we’re desperate for love. No wonder we’re desperate for insight, understanding, or the proverbial “new discoveries”, as many as self-helpers claim. Some even seek knowledge from books! Life goes on despite these events. Day follows day, we fall out of love, our dreams fade, our parents die, our resources grow or dwindle. Even happiness sometimes seems remote. How can a book make any difference?

The great writer Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne were simultaneosly insiders and outsiders. They were literary insiders in the Hollywood art scene and sometime screenwriters living in Malibu during the late 1960s. Didion was a public intellectual with a microphone at The New York Review of Books. But as mere writers, she and her husband remained outsiders in the movie business, where power resided in the hands of studio heads and executive producers. They went to parties, wrote novels, and tried to sell screenplays to Big Shots.

In an essay called “Why I Write” that appeared in the NYRB, Didion describes an experience burned into her memory that must be called existential. “A young woman with long hair and a short white halter walks through the casino at the Riviera at one in the morning. She crosses the casino alone and picks up the house telephone. I watch her because I have heard her paged, and recognize her name: she is a minor actress I see around Los Angeles from time to time, in places like Jax and once in a gynecologist’s office in the Beverly Hills Clinic, but have never met. I know nothing about her. Who is paging her? Why is she here to be paged? How exactly did she come to this? It was precisely this moment in Las Vegas that made Play It As It Lays begin to tell itself to me, but the moment appears in the novel only obliquely, in a chapter which begins: “Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills.” Readers in the life also carry on a secret conversation with the white spaces in their lives, traducing the Everyday and its police force, picking up the lint of another world.

Didion somewhere comments that her attention was “always on the periphery”. She notices the sinister, the “shimmering”, and the famous “white space” that came to dominate her fiction. She wonders out loud: “Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956?” These are experiences (ones we often can’t explain rationally) we never forget, though they seem meaningless or inexplicable sometimes. The Michael Herr who wrote in his book Dispatches about the Vietnam War, remembers a monkey chattering in the forest as helicopters whirred by overhead. I remember the paws of my beloved German Shepherd chattering against a chain link fence as my mother tore me away from both my home and my dog. Thinking back on these experiences, we recall them knifing into us with mysterious force. Now and then, something a book whispers to us bends us towards the sinister, the mysterious or surreal. Reading a book sometimes we think we’ve gotten away with something.

Play It As It Lays is a book about the movie business, suicide and mental illness. The words that critics often use—“transcendent” or worse yet, “luminous”, to describe a work of art, fail to grasp or describe either the temporal suddenness or shocking mystery of what passed between a minor actress walking through the Riviera casino at one o’clock in the morning and a writer observing her, an experience so profound that it resulted in a work of fiction. What, after all, was Didion doing in the Riviera at one o’clock in the morning? How did the experience blossom into a story? Why did the experience suggest suicide and mental illness? Why did it become an ax for Didion’s frozen soul?

These ineluctable problems are at the heart of the reading life; for, readers who are in the life are as involved as the writer in the existential process of finding their way through the riddles, puzzles, problems, torments, heartaches, uncertainties, disappointments and losses that compose the mundane heart of the everyday. Nabokov’s “picnic, lightning” phrases it perfectly. Once in a great while the reader meets a book in the way a picnic meets lightning. This is the power of the book. This is the power of the reader.