Who Gave You That Book?
The young man across the airplane aisle is flying back from Louisiana, where he grew up, to St. Paul, where he lives now. He's lived in St. Paul "long enough to lose my accent," he says, in a voice I don't tell him still thrums with bayou. He works for the paper in St. Paul. I can imagine only one class of person who works for newspapers; I tell him I'm a writer too. He has a jaw like a steam shovel. "Oh no, I'm not a writer," he says, with an old-fashioned disclaiming, as if being a writer were a high thing. "I work in marketing."
"But," I say stupidly, looking at the tattered Penguin in his hand, "you're reading Poe."
"Oh, I just like him," he says (like being two syllables long).
Later, while he is telling his other neighbor about how he would like to coach softball, I sneak another peek at the book. It's The Fall of the House of Usher. I think of the copy of Poe I know best, the one with Harry Clarke's gruesomely lovely illustrations, and then look again at this wholesome young man who looks like the one chosen to repopulate the earth after the flood. He is the exact opposite of the story, at least on his shining surface. How, I wonder, will he take this story? And how has he come to read it?
Dear young man from Louisiana, who gave you that book?
People and books. The bookshelf is a maze of associations. I bought that one because so-and-so recommended it, but I've never wanted to read it because so-and-so recommended it. This book I know I won't read -- the time for it has come and gone somehow -- but I keep it for where and when I got it. The beat-up Wordsworth paperbacks are records of an earlier me, stocking up on Dickens at Foyles. This book I bought thinking of you, the kind of books you like to read. It turns out to be not so good and so I haven't finished it, but when I look at it, I think of you.
"I want to read the books that are significant to you."
This statement plunges me into panic. I look at my shelves. What is significant? For a student I would pull down Anne Carson's Decreation, with its magical freedom of forms, or W. G. Sebald's wandering The Rings of Saturn, or a recent crush: Michael Palmer, Chelsey Minnis, Marjorie Welish. But significant: that must mean something else. For significant, I could go into the bedroom and get the little fairy tale books I've had for years, Andrew Lang's translations of Perrault and Grimm with silhouettes by Jan Pienkowski -- clawing, thorny, intricate silhouettes of women in lace with pert noses and erect nipples, their hair and the tails of their animals spiraling outside the image frames, marbled backgrounds in deep passionate colors. Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth lies on the floor with everything else that wouldn't fit the bookcase; my brother and I read that book over and over when we were kids. But do I want to put those books into the hands of this dedicated visitor; do I want to show them to you; do I want to tell anyone where to find me? And if you read them and find nothing there, then what?
There was a time in my mid-twenties when people were always loaning and giving and recommending me books. I must have seemed half-formed -- to myself, too, because my hands were open to whatever anyone wanted to give me.
A friend lends me By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. I read its fervor rather slowly, caught by the language but with an underlying indifference to the speaker's desperation. Is this what I should be? Romantic, lost, exposed? It takes me so long to read the book, carting it around here and there, that my friend asks for it back. I speed up, race through the end, and return it. My friend looks askance at the book's bent corners. I've never bought my own copy.
Another friend gives me Francine Prose's The Lives of the Muses. She wants that for herself, the magical receptivity that will captivate, inspire, corrupt some male master artist, and perhaps because she wants that and we are friends, she thinks I should want that too. I read most of the book in horrified fascination one evening. Since that night I've moved it from one place to another but I haven't opened it. I don't know why I keep it -- to remember what I don't want?
Conservative relatives, still hoping for a more academic course to my life, give me conservative histories. One night, in a frenzy, I completely shred one, which gives me great satisfaction.
Everyone seems to wonder and care who I am in this period; that's the honey in the trap. Am I Sharon Olds or Jeanette Winterson? I must read them both. Can I still be reformed by Wislawa Szymborska, tamed by Marianne Moore, brought back to the fold by Franz Wright? Or can I screw it all up one more notch like Jorie Graham? I read these books thinking constantly of myself and of whoever recommended them, trying them on, almost, as I would a scarf. I am always disappointed.
When I tell the story above, one friend says that he never reads what anyone he knows recommends. Instead he finds books through reviews written by distant, bodiless strangers. This way he is a self-made man.
I did know someone who read at random, picking up whatever offered, books at free shelves, gifts, recommendations, The Secret, Bukowski, obscure sciences, praising them all with equal and genuine enthusiasm. But who was it? The memory eludes me. I imagine she (it had to be a woman) had loose hair and a breathy voice, but I can conjure nothing more; she was so malleable as to have left no mark.
Some writers I cannot like, even though I read and grudgingly admire them, because I'm still irritated with the people who originally recommended them -- sensitive, good-looking men, poetry types, standoffish, bisexual, with wavy hair like shampoo models.
Sometimes when reading fads run across the art school where I teach (Spinoza, George Saunders), I look around for the charismatic recommender. Is it the scruffy ex-student who still holds court in the coffee shop, or the precise poli sci teacher in the three-piece suit? It's not the book alone that charms them.
Stories from my friends about how they found books that mattered to them:
I was in one of those recurring bad spots in my marriage where I found myself falling in love with a woman at work. I was very discouraged, because I knew that nothing but more suffering lay ahead. Went to a bookstore at lunch and came across Batchelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs. Picked it up, started reading and couldn't stop. Started down a new path...
-- Jeffrey Berger
When I was sixteen, I sat in front of Harold's in Norman, Oklahoma, looking for the closest thing to gay I could find. It didn't take long. That summer Harvey Milk said "come out," and in debates I'd heard mention that Alexander the Great was a homosexual (something that would never be taught in small town Oklahoma, especially in the 1970s). It was rich times, and a horrible place to live -- Oklahoma. But, in Norman, meeting other gay people, I ran into a kind fellow named Jim -- who did not come on to me, thus earning my deepest respect. With Jim, I heard Roberta Flack's First Take album for the first time, and he told me about Mary Renault, who wrote historical fiction and nonfiction about Alexander. I jumped in.
When I first read Fire from Heaven, I was so wound up my eyes would tear just thinking about the relationship between Alexander and his boyhood companion turned adjunct general and lifetime lover. It defied everything I'd been told a homosexual man was. I followed with The Persian Boy and The Nature of Alexander. As a youth wondering if I had gender challenges to address because no other boys were like me, my course was altered by those books, that first book and the cascade of romance in the face of ferocity. While I am a non-violent sort, it smacks so hard against the stereotype of a homosexual that my love for Alexander and identification with Hephaestion remain. They are tattooed on my left forearm.
-- John Vick
I read the books you have given me ("you").
I will read the books you give me.
Will you read the books I give you?
Here is a story I want to find:
Someone recommends a book to you -- no, gives you a book. He or she promises that the book will mean something to you, with eyes so open you can hardly look back, and you know you can't read the book, you can't face the look. Then the person disappears from your life somehow, not a death but a move, a sundering of mutual friends, nothing dire. Then, one day, you read the book, and find it is exactly what you wanted and needed to read. Is it an accident? Do you understand it entirely differently from the one who gave it to you? You look around for the giver but there's no one: just you and the book.